Valley is a priority: ‘Underserved’ area part of council’s plan

The Rio Grande Valley figures largely in a plan developed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to make the state’s grid more reliable after it nearly collapsed during February’s extreme winter weather event.

At a July 15 meeting of the Public Utility Commission of Texas in Austin, ERCOT interim CEO Brad Jones, in a report to commissioners on the status of ERCOT’s “Roadmap to Improving Grid Reliability,” highlighted just a few items of the 60-item plan, and one of them — No. 18 — focused on the Lower Valley.

“This has to do with transmission building,” he said. “The Rio Grande Valley I believe has been underserved by transmission for more than 15 years. I know that throughout my career we have struggled, all of us throughout the industry, to make sure we are getting the right resources down to that area. It’s a very fast growth area and it’s been difficult to stay ahead of that.”

Jones said the Roadmap is the result of conversations with a diverse group of 25 grid consumers, market participants, former regulators, environmentalists and others to discover where improvements need to be made, partly to restore public confidence in ERCOT.

The regulatory agency has been in the hot seat since the Valley and every part of the state was hit with rolling blackouts during the winter storm that gripped the state in mid-February, with many Texans sitting in the dark and cold for days on end — and more than 200 losing their lives — due to failures of the grid.

ERCOT rules dictate that power plants around the state must share what they generate with other parts of the grid in an emergency to keep the whole grid from going down, which is why the Valley experienced prolonged outages despite abundant generating capacity locally.

However, despite the addition of a new 345kV (kilovolt) transmission line from Laredo to Brownsville by way of an Edinburg substation, a project completed in 2016, and a complete upgrade of twin 345kV lines from Corpus Christ to Brownsville around the same time, the Valley is still underserved by transmission capacity, according to Jones.

“One of my goals is to have ERCOT develop a plan in conjunction with our transmission providers for better serving that area, and we have to do so using our transmission-planning rule set,” he told PUCT commissioners.

Jones said he had asked his team at ERCOT to address specific challenges in new ways.

“For example, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is subject to drought conditions,” he said. “Every few years they go through significant drought conditions, and when that happens generation can be constrained in the Valley, so I want our team to be using drought conditions as one of the conditions by which we build more transmission, identifying that in those circumstances we’ll have less generation than we need. We want to make sure we’re building down into that area for that purpose.”

Brownsville Public Utilities Board General Manager John Bruciak said that during the mid-June heat wave that prompted the National Weather Service to issue an excessive heat warning and ERCOT to warn of potential outages unless consumers temporarily reduced their energy usage, BPUB was forced to run its 60-year-old Silas Ray Power Plant around the clock even though the facility is only supposed to serve as a “peaking unit” in late afternoon when electricity demand spikes during the warm months.

Also, despite the ongoing efforts of liquefied natural companies to reach final investment decisions on construction of LNG export terminals at the Port of Brownsville, the way things are now the area lacks sufficient transmission capacity to serve such facilities, he said.

“They need a lot of power,” Bruciak said. “The capacity in the transmission system here, the big electric lines, is not there because wind generation has taken all that capacity up. They’re feasible but they’ve probably got to bring more transmission in from San Antonio or that area. They’re huge energy users round the clock and they’ve got to have reliability. The LNGs could still happen, but I can tell you they’re going to have to build a power plant or build transmission to serve those things. There’s not enough capacity here in the Valley.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com