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    Officials: Grid ready for winter


    December 2, 2022 - Bob Sechler

     

      If the possibility of blackouts this winter worries you, relax.

      That's the message from top Texas utility regulators, who said Tuesday that the state's power grid is ready for the upcoming season even though a new assessment from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the agency that manages the grid — and a federal report released in October don't rule out forced outages if conditions get bad enough.

      "We are better prepared than ever," said Peter Lake, chairperson of the Public Utility Commission of Texas. "Absolutely, I expect the lights will stay on" this winter.

      According to ERCOT's official seasonal assessment of grid preparedness, power generation capacity will be sufficient to meet electricity demand under conditions considered most likely, as well as under a number of moderately worse to "extreme" scenarios it modeled.

      Peak demand is expected to reach 67,398 megawatts if conditions are typical, based on the average winter peaks from 2007 through 2021. Generation capacity, meanwhile, is estimated at about 87,300 megawatts.

      The timeframe ERCOT used to calculate the anticipated peak demand includes the devastating winter storm in February 2021, when a near-collapse of the Texas power grid triggered extensive blackouts and contributed to hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage statewide. Peak power demand during the disaster has been estimated at about 77,000 megawatts, although a significant portion of it wasn't delivered because of the power outages.

      A megawatt of electricity is enough to power about 200 homes.

      Still, one of three extreme scenarios for this winter that ERCOT outlined in its latest assessment would likely result in extensive rolling blackouts if it occurs. Under that scenario — which includes unusually large numbers of power plants being forced offline, low electricity output from wind turbines and demand that turns out to be significantly higher than expected — generation capacity would fall short by about 9,200 megawatts, according to the assessment.

      A review released last month by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also found that the ERCOT grid remains vulnerable to extreme winter weather, with electricity demand probably outstripping generation capacity under conditions similar to those triggered by the prolonged winter freeze that walloped the state in February 2021.

      But Lake and new ERCOT CEO Pablo Vegas said Tuesday that both assessments include "low probability events" that are unlikely to occur. ERCOT is overseen by the Public Utility Commission.

      "For the majority of the scenarios (that are considered extreme), we still see adequate supply to meet the reliability obligations of the grid," Vegas said.

      Grid officials said Tuesday that certain conditions this winter might prompt voluntary calls for power conservation — but that step is well short of forced outages.

      Vegas said the public should view the potential shortfalls in generation capacity outlined in both the ERCOT report and the report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as indications that work still needs to be done to shore up the grid long-term, instead of as a sign that rolling blackouts are a significant possibility this winter.

      "We're not trying to underplay it at all," Vegas said

      Not everyone was convinced, however.

      Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant, said the ERCOT seasonal assessment is an indication that "a storm similar to (the one in February 2021) would again wreak havoc on the state."

      In a Twitter post, Lewin said it has always been "unrealistic to think (the grid) was going to be 'fixed' in a year or two, but the lack of progress on several fronts, especially the demand side, is frustrating to say the least."

      He also noted that the ERCOT report didn't include the possibility of freeze-related disruptions to natural gas supplies, which were among the major causes of the 2021 grid calamity. Natural gas is the fuel used by many power plants to generate electricity.

      But Lake said the reports also didn't account for the multiple grid reforms that have taken place already, such as winterization requirements and improved communications between the state agencies responsible for electric utilities and the natural gas sector.

      Those measures should result in fewer power plants being forced offline, he said, calling the various scenarios outlined in both reports merely the "arithmetic" of supply and demand, a description he has used in the past.

      "While the arithmetic is a good exercise in examining various scenarios, it doesn't take into account" operational improvements, he said.

      Lake, who was appointed to his post by Gov. Greg Abbott in the aftermath of the 2021 grid disaster and has spearheaded much of the effort to improve it, has repeatedly said the grid is more reliable than ever.

      The extreme heat wave this summer presented perhaps the toughest challenge for the grid so far since the February 2021 disaster, prompting record demand for power and some calls by ERCOT officials for voluntary conservation in July. But those situations never tipped into emergencies that might have prompted more drastic measures.

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