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ERCOT facing fresh woes as strains on grid continue

  • Apr 16, 2021
  • 399 views
Source: 
San Angelo Standard-Times

The operator of Texas' power grid is facing fresh skepticism after the grid faced a near emergency Tuesday – just two months since February's deadly power outages.

Even though it was a mild spring afternoon with highs in the 70s and 80s, power generation came close to falling short of demand Tuesday, leading the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to call for conservation.

In the end, no blackouts were ordered as electricity use fell in the evening hours.

However, the failure to accurately predict power generation amid warmer-than-expected temperatures – even though the agency knew that 25% of the grid's power generation had been shut down for maintenance – brought new criticism for ERCOT, which has faced much of the blame for widespread power outages during February's winter storms.

"Incidents like this just really undermine the confidence people have in their utilities and the overall reliability of the electrical grid – and raise concerns about what is in store for Texans this summer," said Mark Jones, senior research fellow at the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs.

Jones, who recently helped produce a study by the Hobby school on the impact of the February freeze, said Tuesday's warning – "out of the blue, on a mild day" – is likely to raise questions among many Texans as to the condition of the grid and whether it's being portrayed accurately by regulators and power companies.

"Up until the February debacle, public confidence in the system and ERCOT was relatively high," he said. "Now, very few people trust ERCOT, and they are going to assume the worst until proven otherwise."

The most recent incident could lend momentum to efforts underway in the Texas Legislature to put in place measures beefing up oversight of the grid and the public accountability of the power companies operating on it, he said.

According to the Hobby school study, about 14 million Texans lost power at some point during the February freeze, while about 4.5 million were without power during the height of the emergency. Official counts indicate that at least 111 Texans died, including 11 in the Austin area, for reasons related to the freeze.

An ERCOT official on Wednesday said 33,000 megawatts of power generation was offline due to power plants being shut down for maintenance in preparation for the summer. Even as temperatures remained mild Wednesday, Texas continued to experience "tight grid conditions" amid the maintenance outages and low wind and solar production, ERCOT said.

ERCOT requires power generators to provide notification of planned outages for maintenance. However, all requests for planned outages made with more than 45 days' notice are automatically accepted. Which plants are offline is confidential information, ERCOT spokeswoman Leslie Sopko said.

Despite current grid conditions, Dave Tuttle, an Energy Institute research associate at the University of Texas, noted that the reserve margin on the grid – meaning the cushion between demand for electricity and the amount being generated – never got small enough under ERCOT guidelines Tuesday to qualify for even its lowest level emergency.

"I just think they had a number of generators that were trying to get ready for the summer (by undergoing maintenance), and all of us are gun-shy right now," Tuttle said. "It's understandable, because everyone went through a traumatic time" during the February freeze.

Tuttle said the power grid appears to be in solid shape for summer, based on ERCOT's forecast for the reserve margin – and provided there aren't any extreme weather events.

The reserve margin this summer is expected to be 15.5%, according to ERCOT, up from 12.6% last summer and 8.6% in 2019. Still, the agency also has warned in the aftermath of the February calamity that certain "extreme scenarios" this summer would lead to blackouts, although it has called the likelihood of them happening improbable.

"I feel good that (ERCOT is) doing everything possible to make sure we don't have a problem" this summer, Tuttle said. "The trends have been in the positive direction as far as having some extra (summer) reserve margin."

It appears that at least some of the providers offline this week for maintenance due to damages suffered during the February freeze. However, Rickerson said he was unsure which ones that might be, and said that most outages he was aware of were not related to the winter storm.

"In April of every year we see a lot of outages for regular maintenance, and what we're seeing is not that unusual," Rickerson said Tuesday.

Rickerson said this is not the first time that ERCOT has called for power conservation in April. He said it "was not that uncommon" for conservation to be called for during milder weather.

The situation sent electricity prices to the highest allowable levels for at least an hour Tuesday afternoon.

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