Record Low Reserves In Texas Could Make Keeping Cool Tough
Though some admitted their worry, energy officials stayed upbeat and positive during ERCOT’s May meeting with electric industry communicators to discuss the state’s tight electric reserve margins.
ERCOT, which manages the flow of electric power to 24 million Texas customers and represents about 90 percent of the Lone Star State’s electric load, predicted yet another summer with record-breaking demand for electricity. Texas’ energy producers would provide enough energy for all, organizers said, and believed the state could handle the task of maintaining the reliability of the system as a whole.
This is despite the fact that ERCOT’s predicted reserve margin—the state’s cushion of energy produced over the predicted peak-energy-use amount—stands at 8.6 percent, an historic low and a little more than five percent below ERCOT’s minimum target reserve margin of 13.75 percent to ensure a reliable grid.
“ERCOT is prepared to use the tools and procedures that are in place to maintain system reliability during tight conditions,” said ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness in an ERCOT news release.
The 8.6 percent reserve has some concerned about possible controlled outages during peak usage times to maintain the system’s integrity. The state’s continuous growth is driving up usage.
Older, less efficient generation plants have gone offline, and a lack of sufficient new generation to counter rising demand has compounded the reserve problem.
“We have several tools that are available to us only during scarcity conditions, including resources that are normally set aside to provide operating reserves, additional generation or imports from neighboring regions and voluntary conservation by consumers,” said Leslie Sopko, ERCOT communications manager. “Should there be a need to issue a conservation appeal for system reliability, we will communicate that to the news media and also post information on our social channels.”
ERCOT’s final summer Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy (SARA) stated that, in all of the scenarios studied, “ERCOT identified a potential need to enter Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) status in order to maintain system reliability.” The final summer SARA report includes a forecasted peak demand of 74,853 MW, which is 1,300 MW higher than the all-time peak demand record set last summer on July 19.
According to ERCOT materials, one megawatt can power about 200 homes.
“Last year, resource performance was exceptional with overall low outage numbers,” Sopko said. “We anticipate there will be excellent system performance again this summer from everyone involved in the ERCOT market.”
Despite the predicted 11 percent reserve margin, the summer of 2018 went without a hitch and without any EEAs, despite multiple hot days and the setting of yet another usage record.
DeeAnn Walker is chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC). This state agency serves as a consumer advocacy center, regulates Texas’ electric, water and telecommunication utilities and implements respective legislation.
She said while she had concerns, she had no doubts Texas could pull off another tight-reserve year.
“I’m a true believer that we Texans will get through this and do this,” she said.
Mother Nature may offer some help this summer, according to Patricia Sanchez, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.
Compared to last year, forecast modeling is signaling a wetter and cooler May, June and July, and meteorologists are anticipating an El Niño (which can bring more rain to Texas), in summer and fall, she said.
However, that doesn’t mean that hot days won’t crop up, she said. The likelihood of above-average temperatures and drier weather most likely doesn’t come into play until closer to the end of July and August. El Niño may not bring rain by then.
Cameron Smallwood, CEO of United, said he’s never seen the reserve margin so low in his 20-plus years in the energy industry.
Texas consumers may need to keep an eye on the state’s overall usage should hotter, dryer temperatures prevail.
Under low reserve conditions, key factors that could prompt calls for rotating outages or voluntary load-shedding include higher usage loads than forecast due to high temperatures, more unscheduled generation outages than forecast, lower wind output than projected or any combination of these possibilities.
Smallwood said ERCOT has its own emergency planning procedures when it comes to keeping the grid reliable, and they are updated and tested regularly with all utilities participating so all are prepared to take measures to help keep the grid stable and to mitigate possibility for an uncontrolled blackout.
“United and its power supplier, Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, regularly participate in these drills to ensure we are all prepared along with every other electric utility in the state of Texas,” he said. “We do this hoping that we never have to use the emergency plans. The latest ERCOT study released shows the state’s grid will only have 8.6 percent more generation than the load during the hottest parts of the summer. So, if certain things happen at the worst time this summer, it could force utilities in Texas to shed load in order to keep the grid operating.
“The process required of United and other utilities by ERCOT in this case is a controlled rotation of outages through manual load shedding. We will turn off several feeders at a time and leave the power off for approximately 20 to 30 minutes. This process will rotate through our system equally until ERCOT deems that the grid is again reliable. To be clear, if ERCOT does require utilities to do this, it will only be in a worst-case scenario, and outages will be relatively short as long as all utilities act quickly. If for some reason all utility providers do not act quickly enough, it could, in a very rare case, lead to an uncontrolled blackout that could take several days to get power restored across Texas.”
The last time Texas and United members saw rotating outages was February 2011 , when arctic weather led to unexpected loss of more than 50 generation units, more than 7,000 megawatts, and additional units continued to trip offline due to the extreme cold temperatures, according to an ERCOT news release from the time. An article in the Texas Tribune stated two-thirds of Texas homes at the time were heated with electricity.
ERCOT said the rotating outages, which are controlled, temporary interruptions of service that ease the load on the electric grid, were necessary to keep the generators that were still producing from overloading and shutting down (as they are designed to do) to avoid damage.
When generators begin shutting down, this can risk a domino effect of more generators doing the same and cause a statewide outage.
Blake Beavers, vice president of power supply at United, said members can help save energy and energy dollars by enrolling in two free programs —Rush Hour Rewards and Beat the Peak.
Peak usage time often occurs in the late afternoon when people begin adjusting their thermostats in unison. United delivers electricity it purchases from Brazos Electric Cooperative. Those energy costs are passed through to members as a separate line item on their electric bills.
Members can help lower United’s (and their own) power costs when they decrease the overall usage consumed across the system during peak usage time, which benefits the entire membership.
Members can join the Rush Hour Rewards program by purchasing a Nest thermostat and signing up online, he said.
Nest thermostats can help members use less energy during the energy rush hour by allowing United the ability to control them during a Rush Hour Rewards Day. The smart/learning thermostats begin cooling down their homes ahead of the peak and then slightly adjusting the temperature up a few degrees later on when it’s needed, Beavers said. However, if members start to feel uncomfortable, they can manually change the temperature at any time.
After signing up, United gives members a one-time $50 bill credit for their initial participation in the program, along with $15 for each summer month they are enrolled—up to $60 a year for each Nest Learning Thermostat in their homes.
To enroll in Beat the Peak, members sign up online to receive text messages and/or emails that alert members when a peak is predicted, Beavers said. Also, they can watch United’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for these alerts.
When an alert is sent, members are encouraged to raise the thermostat voluntarily to 78 during the peak energy period. Members should turn off unnecessary lights and delay using major appliances such as driers, ovens, stove tops and dishwashers until the alert time has passed.
“So far, these programs have been very successful in letting people know when to conserve during the hottest parts of the hottest days,” Beavers said. “It’s great to see members sharing our Facebook posts and participating to help conserve energy for everyone.”