The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been on the receiving end of widespread and harsh criticism for lack of communication and transparency during the February winter storm that knocked out power for millions across the state and killed dozens of people.
Now ERCOT, which regulates most of Texas’ power grid, isn’t taking any chances. On April 13 the group issued a late afternoon call to Texas residents and businesses to conserve electricity due to low generating capacity and higher-than-expected demand for electricity. A number of power plants were offline for maintenance, either repairing damage from February or getting ready for summer.
ERCOT, which was excoriated yet again by customers and lawmakers for allowing such a thing to happen on a day that wasn’t really that hot, announced that evening that the danger had passed. But in March, ERCOT issued its most extreme initial seasonal assessment yet for what summer could have in store.
Each of three scenarios ERCOT presented projected shortages of generating capacity this summer, resulting in outages for 720,000, 1.5 million or 2.8 million households, depending on the severity of the shortage.
Brownsville Public Utilities Board General Manager and CEO John Bruciak, asked for his perspective, said he’s more worried about the 2021 hurricane season, which is expected to be active, than power outages. He said ERCOT’s April 13 announcement “spooked a lot of people in the legislature” and surprised even him.
Still, it was relatively warm — a high in the mid-80s in Brownsville — and plenty of generating units statewide were down for maintenance that normally would have been done in February when demand is lower, Bruciak said.
“I think they’re maybe being a little bit overcautious now on notifying everybody if there’s a chance (of problems),” he said.
As for the dire seasonal assessment for summer, Bruciak said ERCOT, because of what happened in February, is making an extra effort to give residents advanced notice of the “what ifs” during a summer the nation’s weather agencies are predicting will be tough.
“They’re basically saying it’s going to be a hot and dry summer, and if everything goes bad — the wind doesn’t blow and it’s cloudy and there’s no sun —we could have problems,” he said. “But I’m not as concerned. We’re maintaining our units right now to have them run in the summer.”
BPUB’s Silas Ray Power Plant in Brownsville is getting a new natural gas line, which will help, Bruciak said. Outages aren’t unheard of during the summer during peak demand, though when they happen it’s usually later in the afternoon, he said.
“But then you get into the evening and it goes down,” Bruciak said. “Unlike a winter event, where things get worse at night, it actually improves the capacity and demand goes down in the evening, so if there was anything I think it may be short-term.”
Brownsville is well positioned geographically in terms of wind-power generation matching peak demand during the summer, since the coastal wind usually starts blowing hardest around the same time demand begins to ramp up in late afternoon, he said.
“That tracks our demand really well,” Bruciak said. “It falls off in the evening as our load falls off and picks up in the middle of the day when our load increases.”
Meanwhile, the state’s electrical infrastructure can handle hot weather much better that it can handle winter extremes — especially a winter blast that affects the whole state, said BPUB Chief Operating Officer Fernando Saenz.
“When cold weather gets a grip on an entire state all at one time its bite is relentless,” he said. “It does not stop. Once you get below freezing and it stays down there for many hours, then all kinds of things can happen.”
That includes freezing natural gas lines during sub-zero weather, which squeezes the supply of gas to power plants, exacerbated by the fact that gas is also used for home heating, Saenz said.
Much of what needs to be done to the grid in Texas to avoid a repeat of February — winterization basically — has been built into northern state grids since the beginning, though going back and doing it in Texas would be challenging, Saenz said.
“It just depends on what it is that you put into the design,” he said.” But after something’s built, to go retrofit, it’s always the most expensive way to go. When you build something from the ground up, then you’re much better off.”
Bruciak noted that the Legislature is in the middle of debate over how to bolster the state’s infrastructure to avoid another grid-crippling weather event, but said there are no quick fixes, especially when it comes to building more power plants, an idea that’s being floated.
“That takes time,” he said. “It takes time to permit them. It takes time to build them. Nobody’s building power plants. The turbines manufacturers aren’t set up to do that. That’s not a quick fix, and it’s not a cheap fix either. All of that stuff is going to take some pass through probably to all the customers at some point in time to pay for all that stuff.”
Saenz said that if the state could find a mechanism to pay for a public or private entity to build, say, a 10-gigawatt power plant that might only get used once every 10 years in case of emergency, it wouldn’t take long to pay for itself considering how much economic damage widespread outages cause. Increasing generating resources is one thing but paying for it is another, he said, comparing it to a “tug of war where you’ve got to keep the flag in the middle.”
Bruciak, meanwhile, is keeping his fingers crossed that the weather experts are wrong about hurricane season.
“Certainly from a facilities standpoint that could cause us problems, if we had a direct hit from a hurricane, and the same with the wind farms along the coast,” he said.