As Texans are asked to conserve electricity, can power grid withstand summer heat?

David J. Phillip/AP

Will Texas see another blackout as residents who suffered a deadly winter storm are again asked to conserve electricity?

Ann Bluntzer, acting director of the TCU Energy Institute, said she feels more confident headed into the summer months than she was in February, when millions went several days without electricity, though she noted there is a small chance of outages if there’s extreme heat and extreme energy consumption.

“I think we’re not going to have the weatherization issues in summer,” Bluntzer said. “When you look at what really fell apart in February, a lot of it can be pointed to those centers were not properly weatherized, and that led to a lot of the failures.”

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the organization tasked with managing Texas’ power grid, on Monday called on residents to reduce electricity use, citing significant strain on the grid due to forced outages at power plants combined with potential record demand. The organization reported more than 12,000 megawatts of generation was out in the state as of 2:30 p.m Monday.

“We are deeply concerned about the issues associated with all of these plants that are offline at this time,” Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s senior director of System Planning, said at the time. “We will be doing a thorough investigation to understand what the issues are and to assess what the implications are for the grid.

About 24 hours later, ERCOT was seeing roughly 10,600 megawatts offline, nearly 9,700 of which were forced outages, spokesperson Leslie Sopko told the Star-Telegram. ERCOT also reported that Monday saw a record 69,943 megawatts in demand for electricity.

“Power plant owners continue repairs of unexpected equipment failures, and ERCOT is using all the tools in its toolbox to maintain reliability in the face of potential record-setting electricity demand,” a news release reads.

As ERCOT asks Texans to conserve power each afternoon between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Friday, the organization is stressing that the “gird is operating exactly as it was designed and intended.”

“The issuance of conservation notices is a common practice and prevents ERCOT from entering emergency conditions,” ERCOT said in a news release. “Conservation efforts combined with the changes in procedures and processes implemented by ERCOT and the PUC following the winter storm prevented the possibility of rotating outages yesterday and ensured that no Texans lost power.”

Pressed Monday about whether he’s confident Texas can get through the summer without blackouts, Lasher repeated that he found the number of outages Monday “very concerning” but didn’t directly answer the question.

“We operate the grid with the resources that we have available, and it’s the responsibility of the generation owners to make sure that their plants are available during the peak hours when customer demand is very high during the summer months,” he said.

ERCOT expects record demand

ERCOT previously said it is expecting record-high demand for electricity this summer because of hot and dry conditions and population growth. The grid manager in a May 6 news release said it anticipates enough generation to meet the summer peak demand of 77,144 megawatts. The organization, which is overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, has forecasted a a 15.7% reserve margin for the summer.

A little after 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, ERCOT was reporting a demand of about 69,200 megawatts, with just over 3,000 megawatts in operating reserves.

The margin the past couple days is “tight,” said Wei-Jen Lee, an electrical engineering professor at UT Arlington. He said 15% is a “healthy” margin.

“Now you don’t have too much room for error,” he said.

Lee doesn’t expect a blackout over the summer, but said he does expect Texans to get requests to conserve power.

Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, which advocates for changes at the Railroad Commission of Texas, anticipates an outage like the one in February.

“We’re at the beginning of the summer, it’s not even the hottest part of the summer, and we’re already having these issues,” she said. “Unless we have all these generators back online in the next month or so — even then it’s a little tenuous, because our weather is so much more unpredictable now, and we’re so much more prone to extremes.”

The reasoning for the unplanned outages remains unclear. Lasher on Monday said he didn’t have information on whether the generator outages are due to repairs from the winter storm.

“My hunch is that we’re seeing more generators out for maintenance right now because they’re still recovering from what happened in February,” Palacios said. “So I think this is sort of like the aftereffects of February. … We’re not ready for this fast approaching summer that we’ve had already.”

Doug Lewin, an energy and climate consultant, said that under normal circumstances he’d say the chance of outages like those seen in February are very low.

“But clearly these are not normal circumstances, right?” he said.

Lewin said he hopes to see a quick investigation into what’s causing the outages to fix the problem before August when temperatures could climb higher.

Changes after the February winter storm

A presentation from a June 8 ERCOT board meeting lays out changes to summer operations, some of which are in response to the winter storm. Among initiatives is a plan by ERCOT to visit select power plants to review their plans to weatherize for the summer. According to ERCOT, such checks have happened in the past for winter weatherization, but not for summer.

Lasher said 20 plant visits had been conducted as of Monday, with 11 more scheduled over the coming two weeks. He said four of the plants that have been checked went offline Monday.

“While the risk for emergency conditions remains low this summer based on many of the scenarios studied, a combination of factors in real time, including record demand, high thermal generation outages and low wind/solar output could result in tight grid conditions,” Woody Rickerson, ERCOT’s vice president of grid planning and operations, said in a May statement. “We cannot control the weather or forced generation outages, but we are prepared to deploy the tools that are available to us to maintain a reliable electric system.”

Texas lawmakers passed a wide-ranging bill in response to the winter storm that, among other measures, requires electricity generators, transmitters and critical natural gas facilities to prepare for extreme weather. Abbott signed Senate Bill 3 on June 8, declaring that “the legislature passed comprehensive reforms to fix all of the flaws that led to the power failure.”

The bill has been criticized by some energy professionals and Democrats for not going far enough to protect Texans.

Bluntzer noted that there’s really no weatherization to be done in the summer months. She didn’t expect the legislation to have any significant impact this summer.

During a news conference marking the bill signing, Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, defended the grid’s ability to endure the summer months. He noted that the reserve margins are predicted to increase in the coming years.

“Our system continues to grow, we continue to have investment that helps meet the demands that we have on our load, and so that’s why, if you look at the report that ERCOT had out regarding summer capacity, that they feel very comfortable that we’ll be able to meet the demands this summer,” Hancock said.

What can you do to save power?

According to ERCOT, some steps Texans can take to conserve power are:

  • Setting your thermostat to 78 degrees or higher.

  • Turning off lights and pool pumps.

  • Avoid the use of large appliances.

  • Turn off and unplug electronics you don’t need.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.