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West Texas Needs Electricity: The Congested Transmission Problem

image credit: Energy Ink Magazine 2019
Eric Sharpe's picture
Editor, Researcher Energy Ink Magazine

I am the Editor and Chief conrtibutor of Energy Ink Magazine which covers the energy industry in the American Plains and Rocky Mountain region.  Our deeply researched coverage has truly impacted...

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  • Jul 19, 2019

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is contending with transmission congestion issues as West Texas electricity peak demand has increased tenfold in the past decade. Rapid additions of solar and wind generation have further complicated matters as the state fast tracks construction of new transmission lines to expand available transmission capacity (ATC).

As the electricity intensive oil industry has expanded in Texas, so has power generation demand as each of its estimated 187,000 operating pump jack motors can require an average of 10,000kWhr a month. Additionally, the Houston metroplex area has seen a population increase of 18% since 2010 stressing electricity supplies along the North to Houston Import region.

Demand has largely been met as solar additions are estimated to double from 2018 to 2019 to meet the estimated 5% demand increase across the state according to ERCOT. Wind additions tripled from 2009 to 2017 and is estimated to generate 19% of Texas’ total fuel mix.

Those capacity additions have helped end thin demand/supply margins in the state where the U.S. Energy Administration’s summer capacity estimates revealed generating resource demand reaching a critical 98.3% of capacity in 2011. Most regions operate at about 80% of capacity during peak load period as having 20% generating capacity in the bank ensures power reliability. Since then, capacity margins have eased year over year with a summer capacity margin of 21% in 2018.

The challenge for ERCOT is not in filling demand by adding new power generating sources but rather in delivering that supply, especially to West Texas’ Permian oil region. The overwhelming load growth of the Yucca Drive-Gas Pad 138kV Line and the Panhandle Export transmission area is in critical need of additional carrying capacity through the introduction of substation upgrades, efficiencies, and new transmission line construction. That load growth, or demand for energy, is only going to get worse with estimates of an 11% increase from 2017 to 2023. As there is no room on the lines now, Texas is scrambling to build new ones.

What happens when demand outpaces supply? First, electricity gets pulled down other lines to make up the difference, and that costs customers. Transmission limitations driven by what are called “power import constraints” in 2018 led to amazing cost increases due “congestion rents”. Those “rents” in the Yucca Drive line amounted to $257 million dollars (for October 2017 through September 2018). The Panhandle region's congestion rents were nearly $164 million.

“Congestion rents” is a rather complex set of calculations based on a number of factors, but for purposes here, they are the excess costs of finding power outside of where it usually comes from to keep the lights on.

According to ERCOT's “2018 Constraints and Needs Report”, West Texas congestion was unique as south to north power flow was high during daytime hours when solar generators were active, then flipped at night to a north-south flow when solar units were largely offline. Though transmission upgrades placed in service in July 2018 served to correct some congestion issues, other unique challenges exist in the West Texas region.

With the significant increase in wind generation in that region, and due to the inverter based design of wind generation, system strength and stability has limited reliable power flow. As ERCOT is studying planned additions of 16,990 MW of wind and solar generation which would amount to an increase of some 300% over the 5,424 MW of such power currently online, transmission expansion and stability has been a central concern.

West Texas Transmission Map

What this means is that wind turbines weren’t really designed for use on the U.S. grid. The frequency at which they produce electricity just doesn’t match the electrical currents on the grid.

As that tech was originally developed overseas, U.S. wind companies solved the problem by adding components to turn the AC current coming from the turbine into DC current, then back again to AC current to match those frequencies. It works, but it also creates lags in the system when wind generation is not producing at a constant rate which causes so called inertia and ramping problems. A typical power plant spins its generator and can rev it up or down as needed. Wind turbines can’t do that. It’s basically either go, or stop, and ramping up back to “go” takes time.

However, as the quandary of invertor based systems which struggle with inertia and ramping problems will only grow with wind generation additions, solutions are being implemented with success in West Texas.

Improvement projects have already been completed including synchronous condenser installations at both the Alibates and Tule Canyon substations. Without the technical explanation, when voltage decreases from a spinning generator, so does power. A synchronous condenser increases the current flow when voltage is decreasing. What that does is keep the power flowing at a constant rate regardless of whether power generating voltage is going up or down.

A second 345 kV circuit connecting the Tule Canyon, Ogallala, Windmill, AJ Swope and Alibates substations was also completed, though ERCOT admits “they are not expected to eliminate the congestion in the area.” Regardless, the synchronous condensers have provided for power factor efficiencies that have increased substation performance.

Additionally, ERCOT anticipates the planned integration of the Lubbock Power and Light system in 2021, (approved in March of 2018) which will include additional 345kV lines connecting to the Panhandle, will reduce energy transfers out of the area.

Nearer the Permian’s more active oil development region in Midland County, the Bearkat Area Transmission Improvements project approved in October 2018 seeks to alleviate congestion which occurs 51% of the time. The $53 million dollar project will add new 345kV bays at both the Longshore and Bearkat stations and construct a new 27 mile long 345kV single circuit line from the Bearkat to Longshore stations. The Bearkat project is just one of eight planned transmission improvement and construction projects for West Texas to be completed by 2023.

In total, ERCOT spent $2.256 billion on transmission improvements in 2018 and estimated an additional $4.735 in expenditures from 2019 to 2021, which combined will add 1,500 new circuit miles and upgrade and rebuild an additional 3,200 miles.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 19, 2019

This is a great overview of the situation at ERCOT, I appreciate you laying out all in one place. 

Demand has largely been met as solar additions are estimated to double from 2018 to 2019 to meet the estimated 5% demand increase across the state according to ERCOT. Wind additions tripled from 2009 to 2017 and is estimated to generate 19% of Texas’ total fuel mix.

This quote made me wonder-- Eric, do you find that the planned additions of solar/wind resources on ERCOT are being done specifically with a mind to meeting additional expected power demand, or is the intent more to displace fossil fuel generation without as much a mind towards increasing overall generation capacity? Or is the renewable growth intended to be leveraged to simultaneously achieve both goals? I only ask because I feel like the context of new renewable generation is typically framed as enabling a given energy mix to adjust to a cleaner power source, not as much as a means to keep up with demand growth

Eric Sharpe's picture
Eric Sharpe on Jul 19, 2019

Matt - A well framed questioned.  I’m fairly certain both objectives are in mind as there's a few other sub-issues at play here as well.

Texas' coal fired power plants rely on lignite which is "dirtier" than the more common sub-bituminous used in most power plants. This put Texas on the tip of the spear in the so-called war on coal. Lignite production has been on the decline in Texas for some time as they lost their top producing spot to North Dakota in 2018.  Additionally, Texas is not beholden to the coal industry like some states as NG has been their primary firm power driver for some time. Coal currently generates around 25% of the state electricity.

Secondly, it simply makes economic sense to “go green” considering Texas’ vast solar and wind “resources”, as it were (ie, sunny and flat).  Most people would be surprised to find that Texas is the top wind-powered generation state in the country producing about 25% of all U.S. wind electricity -that's not being driven by politics.

So, yes, it’s a good political move, but frankly, it’s far more of a “capitalist” thing. As solar continues to advance technology that can essentially make it a firm power source (molten salt tech essentially serving as batteries),  TX and the southwest will turn to energy sources that make more economic sense.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 19, 2019

That context is very helpful-- really appreciate your thoughtful answer, Eric

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 19, 2019

Eric, it's wonderful clean energy from the wind can be used to pull dirty energy from the ground, but I'm not sure exactly why. Can you explain?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 19, 2019

Because the alternative is worse? The oil companies will be producing oil as long as it's economically viable, but since it's such an energy intensive industry we should of course work to get their energy consumption to be cleaner. Unless the alternative is a leg of the 'keep it in the ground' push, which would have a long way to go before there's any headway in that (for better or worse), having the energy consumption from oil companies coming from less fossil fuels and more clean energy is a good thing. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 19, 2019

False dichotomy, Matt. There's more than one alternative to using wind + gas (it's a package deal, and it could be worse than coal given the gas industry's 2.3% leakage rate). 

A true dichotomy: leave it in the ground, or succumb to destruction of climate with fossil fuels. And no, distractions like "a little renewable energy here, a little there," are not a good thing.

Eric Sharpe's picture
Eric Sharpe on Jul 22, 2019


Sorry for the delay in responding.  I always feel a need to lead with my politics on such issues (which I do as well with my readers at Energy Ink Magazine) as I want readers to understand that my work and conclusions (hopefully) are unbiased.  I am not a conservative, nor am I a liberal. I am a centrist to the core – not a fence sitter – but a person who attempts to find the facts and make determinations based on those facts.


Thus, in brief:

  • I know that climate change is real and that it is a result of human activity.
  • I know that fossil fuels are damaging our environment and in many cases, our collective health.
  • I know that, at present, renewable energy sources cannot displace petroleum as the primary driver of the world’s transportation energy needs. (and other needs)
  • Thus, I firmly believe we still need to take oil “out of the ground” though with the best environmental practices in mind.


You asked, “clean energy from the wind can be used to pull dirty energy from the ground, but I'm not sure exactly why.”  The why is simple:  It’s about money (by and large).  The macro-economic drivers of capitalism carry no moral value, only monetary value, and, as such, if something makes money, (including environmentally friendly development), then it will be deployed.  It is simply more economically sound to use wind and solar in West Texas as building NG plants is costly.


As a society, we of course attempt to achieve the moral (and frankly, simply correct) course regardless of the economic implications.  But it is not simply a matter of greedy corporations fighting those moral correctors.  It is global society’s demand for goods and services. Here’s a very good article published just last week on that topic from Forbes… it does not bode well for the future:


Arguments can be made that “greedy corporations” have essentially created that demand, but in the context of this response, the point is that demand is increasing. 


And not just for oil as energy, but for products derived from petroleum and NG.  Not talking down to you, as I am sure you are aware of this fact, but we did produce a good infographic if interested:


There is no practical alternative feedstock to produce the millions of products requiring plastics and other synthetic materials.  Deploying wide-scale plant based cellulose synthetics as an alternative would create a different kind of environmental nightmare as millions of acres of land would have to be converted along with the use of immeasurable amounts of water, fertilizer, etc...


So. The black and white solution of “leaving it in the ground” is simply not feasible (though if you have a counter to that belief, please do share –   I am smart enough to know I may be missing some facts.) As such, I support fossil fuel development though our publication has been very critical of environmentally reckless actions… which unbelievably, has been well received by the very industries we’ve criticized.   


Frankly, I truly wish we could leave it in the ground.  I just believe that the facts are clearly pointing to the conclusion that we can not. Eventually, we will be able to.



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 23, 2019

Eric, self-interest has never been effective at solving societal problems. That's why we have a U.S. Postal Service, a U.S. interstate highway system, a U.S. military (yes, our military is a socialist enterprise), a federal corrections system, even a U.S. government.

"...if something makes money, (including environmentally friendly development), then it will be deployed."

Heroin makes money (or so I've heard). So does prostitution, thievery, trafficking...the list goes on. All have vested self-interests which throw collective welfare under the bus. So no, I don't buy the idea that energy, or the postal service, or any of the other agencies listed above must (or should) be deregulated/privatized - that we're doomed to let individuals run over the well-being of everyone else just because "something makes money." Or, that we should necessarily avoid policy which is unprofitable.

"It is simply more economically sound to use wind and solar in West Texas as building NG plants is costly."

Energy must be used as it's generated. What do you think is generating the energy for residents of El Paso, Amarillo, Odessa, or Midland at night when the wind isn't blowing?

With every new wind or solar farm there's a new gas plant to back it up - because letting the lights go out is not an option.

"There is no practical alternative feedstock to produce the millions of products requiring plastics and other synthetic materials..."

Agree - of course. Durable plastic goods last longer.

"So. The black and white solution of 'leaving it in the ground' is simply not feasible..."

Eric, the black and white solution of leaving it in the ground (for energy) is our only hope. According to IPCC, we must stop energy-related extraction/combustion of fossil fuels by 2100 or we will pass critical turning points, when changes to climate lasting 100,000 years will be locked in, when one of four species on Earth will go extinct.

But don't listen to me, listen to what the most knowledgeable people on climate have been saying for 30 years. From the man considered the "Father of Climate Change Awareness," Columbia climate scientist James Hansen:

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and the Last Chance to Save Humanity

(either world-reknowned scientist Hansen is resorting to hyperbole, or it really is that bad).

The good news is, there is a solution:

Senate Briefing on Climate Change by MIT Climate Pioneer Kerry Emanuel (10 min)


Eric Sharpe's picture
Eric Sharpe on Jul 25, 2019


I really appreciate the discourse.  Truly – thanks!  That’s why I respond in abundance!

In these times, such disagreements are so terribly vitriolic.  And often, there is no room for any agreement.  We are indeed on the same page in at least a few areas… perhaps more than you may assume.  It’s the finality of the issues we agree on that I disagree with.


I want to clarify that I am not advocating that "...if something makes money… it will be deployed."  It is distasteful, but this is how capitalism works – and I favor it for all its evils.  And indeed, we are not a purely capitalist society.  I just published a piece on that very topic – (again if interested, I think I’d especially like to hear your opinion on it:)  (you may have to copy and paste the link)


You appear to be in favor of socialist practices.  I am not an anti-socialist out of hand. But as horribly flawed our mixed market capitalist system is, I am of the belief a move to socialism would be far more disastrous than climate change (which I do not believe will ultimately mean the end of the world) because of one singular inherent flaw…


As to your horizontal comparisons of heroin and criminal enterprise to fossil fuels, I’d humbly submit they are inferior parallels as they carry no benefits as do fossil fuels.  But I understand the point. I believe a better parallel would be prescription medications.  They have served to solve a number of ailments while also serving to create them.  They save lives and take them. They allow us to behave badly without consequence (ie., instead of not eating foods that give me heart burn, I’ll take a pill to avoid heartburn). 


In that, if we could end prescription medication use the world would be a better place.  People would of course have to stop engaging in behavior that requires such medications, but most would survive.  For those who would not, the offsets of those dying in need of medication versus those dying because of medication overdose or enabling unhealthy behavior would favor med abolition. And that is the black and white.  If we end all fossil fuel use, people would indeed perish (plastics = medical devices too, and a host of other benefits).  Certainly though, I agree, the health benefits of ending fossil fuels would offset the negative – but only in direct correlation to health.  Other results must be considered.


But please respond with honestly.  Wouldn’t mandating an end to prescription medications essentially make us “doomed to let [different] individuals run over the [free will and liberty] of everyone else”? 


The single inherent flaw of socialism, and your argument, is carried in that question. It is a matter of “other” individuals making moral decisions for the rest of us.  And that comes with the assumption that those individuals morality is absolute and without imperfection. That terrifies me.  


Capitalism, including its socialist tendencies, eventually gets it right.  When demand is no longer viable, supply will change.  I agree, in the present case, it will be too late.  I fully agree in fact that we will pass the tipping point and our planet will be altered for generations to come. Species will be lost.  Civilizations will be displaced.  But most will survive.  We will survive the follies of free will because when the climate deniers are finally proven wrong with such cataclysmic results, solutions at mitigating the damage will be found because there will be money to be made in those solutions. Abject necessity leads to solutions.  Grim indeed, but a course of nature.


I don’t like that conclusion.  I simply see that alternative black and white solution you offer demands more than simply mandating an end to GHG emissions.  It demands far more as there is only one certain solution to enforcing such a mandate- global revolution.  And it would have to be violent for nothing short of war will end it.  China’s capitalist Belt and Road initiative is expanding fossil fuel use by magnitude.  Stopping them would require war. That is the black and white.  And that is why I say the vision of a socialist utopia where we no longer develop in the ground resources is impossible for it can only be achieved (at present) through a violent suppression that by default would violently suppress free will.  (by the way - yes to Nuclear power.  But enforcing its use requires the above as well)


I am open to hearing how else it could be achieved. If I am correct, then I ask if the benefits of such a revolution would indeed offset the negatives of ending global climate change? 


I see those two choices clearly: violent revolution vs. long term capitalist driven fixes.  Marx’s iron fist versus Adam Smith’s invisible hand, as it were. The former destroys life and liberty in order to save.  The latter saves (eventually) from the destruction it created, but does not enforce perceived superior morality through violent suppression. Neither are morally acceptable.  But we must accept one or the other.  The former is neither reasonable nor remotely possible.  The latter is inevitable. Thus, I submit we must accept the latter while engaging in as much protest as possible to guide it as best we can.


Which would you truly prefer?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 28, 2019

Eric, thanks for your thoughtful response.

I apologize if I've given the impression I "favor socialist practices." In general, I avoid adjectives like socialistcapitalist and their corresponding nouns because describing complex issues in simple terms ultimately does more harm than good.

For example: I don't understand the circuitous logic taking you from the U.S. Postal Service to destroying life and liberty, violent revolution, and Marx's iron fist - like the irrational bias against nuclear energy, these visions are based in fear. I reject both fear as a basis for sound policy, and the false dichotomoy we have to "accept one or the other" - Marx's iron fist or Machiavellian oligarchy - when both were abject failures. For which I would prefer, put me down for "neither" - the Founders worked out an imperfect compromise, and it yet might be the best of all possible worlds.

"But please respond with honestly.  Wouldn’t mandating an end to prescription medications essentially make us 'doomed to let [different] individuals run over the [free will and liberty] of everyone else'?"

Honestly, yes. So let's not mandate an end to prescription medications, and run over the well-being of everyone else. Let's mandate an end to fossil fuels, which are running over the well-being of everyone else, when there are alternatives. See the difference?

PS you already have others making moral decisions for you. They've decided murder is always bad. They've decided having a US Postal Service is good, but having other delivery services is good, too. There's a whole lot of gray area between Marx's iron first and Machiavelli's "Prince".

They care about your opinion, but only in proportion to your vote. If that terrifies you, I think most would consider that an issue for which you'd have to take personal responsibility.

PPS "I fully agree in fact that we will pass the tipping point and our planet will be altered for generations to come. Species will be lost.  Civilizations will be displaced.  But most will survive." Would your opinion be different if changes were expected to last more than 100,000 years, if one out of every four species might be lost, Homo Sapiens among them? By virtually unanimous consensus, this is the reality future generations are facing. If you don't think the problem is that serious, you don't know enough about it.


Eric Sharpe's picture
Eric Sharpe on Jul 29, 2019


For some reason I can not respond to your last post.  I'll be much more brief.  How do you propose to "mandate an end to fossil fuels" in the face of such resistance?  My conclusions were aimed at indicating we can not.  If you have ideas as to the fix, please share.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 30, 2019

Eric, I made it that way intentionally so I could have the last word! (j/k - for formatting purposes on this site, you have to reply to the last post with a REPLY link higher up).

Though we could never mandate an end to fossil fuels globally,  the responsibility rests with the country which has reaped the most reward at the expense of all others - the U.S. - to set an example for the rest of the world. We alone have the capability and resources to lead the way with an economy powered by a) nuclear electricity, and b) carbon-neutral liquid synfuels. If we can't take responsibility as a nation (or as a species), then I've overestimated both our intelligence and compassion, and our descendants will just have to suffer the consequences.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 30, 2019

the responsibility rests with the country which has reaped the most reward at the expense of all others - the U.S. - to set an example for the rest of the world. We alone have the capability and resources to lead the way with an economy powered by a) nuclear electricity, and b) carbon-neutral liquid synfuels.

Unfortunately, many politicians seem to gloss over this fact and simply think that us paying a larger portion of funds for international climate agreements is inherently unfair and is them robbing us blind. It's a sad state of affairs

Eric Sharpe's picture
Eric Sharpe on Jul 31, 2019


I humbly grant you the last word :) (official last word), though I also grant you a final agreement: I too hope we have not "overestimated both our [the global "our"] intelligence and compassion".  


Mark Lancaster's picture
Mark Lancaster on Jan 6, 2020

Interesting article - Baker Hughes is offering solutions to the oil field so they can create their own electricity and not be dependent on grid power...

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