Texas Heatwave Puts Strain On Electric Grid
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Austin Public Radio reporter Mose Buchele, was originally published by KUT.
Texans woke up Monday morning to a familiar fear, worried that the state’s electric grid may not provide enough energy to see them through the day. While the anxiety is understandable, a shortfall of energy reserves on the system does not automatically mean the grid operator will order rolling blackouts.
If you, like millions of others, are wondering about the likelihood of blackouts, here’s a review of what happens if the state falls short of power:
Our current grid fears were prompted by an energy conservation request from the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. In a press release Sunday night, ERCOT asked people to conserve power from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, the time when demand is expected to be the highest.
The request was made because ERCOT projected an energy reserve shortage at that time “with no market solutions available,” according to an operations notice posted to its website.
It’s important to note that an energy “reserve” shortage is not exactly the same as an energy shortage. It means that the grid may not have a comfortable amount of reserve energy in addition to what ERCOT expects demand will be. The grid operator wants to keep an extra cushion of “just-in-case” energy in reserve. The initial notice warned that that cushion was expected to be less than it should be.
Remember: Balancing supply and demand on the grid is ERCOT’s main responsibility. If that balance falls out of whack, the grid could suffer what’s often called a “catastrophic failure,” a crash far worse and lasting far longer than what the state experienced in the February 2021 blackout.
Just because “market solutions” may be lacking to provide a suitable reserve of electricity on the grid, ERCOT still has things it can do to balance supply and demand. Those actions can include finding new sources of energy supply or paying big energy users to reduce their demand.
ERCOT will take those emergency actions depending on how severe energy scarcity becomes. The more scarce energy becomes on the grid, the higher the “Energy Emergency Alert Level” ERCOT declares.
As of early Monday afternoon, ERCOT had not declared an energy emergency alert.
It’s important to remember that deciding when we enter into these alert levels depends on the subjective determinations of the state’s grid operators. For example, Energy Emergency Alert Level 1 is supposed to be declared only if ERCOT thinks energy reserves will fall below 2,300 megawatts “and won’t recover within 30 minutes.”
Without getting too into the weeds, each alert level provides the grid operator with options to try to reduce energy demand and increase supply. For example, at Energy Alert Level 1, ERCOT begins importing more power from neighboring grids on some of the few, relatively small, interconnections the state maintains. At Alert Level 2, ERCOT tells large industrial energy consumers to stop using so much power, a grid reliability measure that ERCOT, and by extension Texas energy consumers, pay these big companies to provide.
Only if all other efforts prove insufficient does ERCOT move to Alert Level 3, a level at which it can order blackouts to reduce demand and rebalance the grid.
The blackouts (also called “planned outages” or “load shed” by people in the grid business) are typically “rolled” throughout the population, to make sure no one is without power for too long. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. In February 2021, millions lost power for days.
If you’re interested in keeping tabs on grid conditions and monitoring what stages of energy scarcity the grid may approach, you can find that on the ERCOT website.
Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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Mose Buchele is KUT’s Senior Correspondent for Energy and Environment. He reports on local and state issues with a focus on climate change and is based in Austin, Texas.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. And now it’s time to check in on the State of Science.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Deep in the heart of Texas, it has been a scorching summer. In Austin, for example, the highs have been over 100 degrees for nearly all of July. This is putting a huge strain on the power grid in Texas. The electricity council that supplies energy to residents has asked people to reduce their energy usage during this intense heat. And people are understandably not happy about that.
Joining me to talk about what’s going on in Texas is my guest, Mose Buchele, energy and environment reporter for KUT Public Radio in Austin. Welcome back.
MOSE BUCHELE: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I know you’ve been dealing with this Texas heat. Can you walk us through what’s been going on with the energy supply this week?
MOSE BUCHELE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the heat started in the spring. And it’s been pretty much nonstop. And obviously, that drives up energy use. The main driver for power use in Texas in the summer is, of course, air conditioning. And when you have heat like this, people are going to crank up their AC. That puts a strain on the power grid. And our power grid is wobbly already, as we’ve talked about before. And so, when the energy use goes up, you start hearing these conservation calls come in.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, your famous power grid. But what are the standard recommendations for people to conserve energy? Lower the AC, things like that?
MOSE BUCHELE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they ask people to lower their AC. They ask you not to run major appliances. They recommend running a fan in your house if you can, as opposed to having your air conditioning up. So kind of common sense things that they put out these statewide requests for people to do with the hopes that if enough people do them, it will lower energy demand and kind of release some of the strain on the electric grid.
IRA FLATOW: I’m sure people are pretty upset at this. Where are they turning their anger to, the government or to the power company?
MOSE BUCHELE: Well, what you got here is, obviously, in Texas, we are the only state in the continental US with our own independent power grid. And you referenced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas earlier. That’s really the kind of face of what’s going on here. This is our grid operator. They’re the ones that put out these conservation requests. And ever since that big blackout that happened in 2021, people have kind of focused a lot of their anger, warranted or not, at that grid operator. We call it ERCOT.
IRA FLATOW: And as you mentioned last time you were on this show back in 2021, that blackout was where the grid failed because it was too cold. And now we’re talking about issues for being too hot. What’s going wrong to create this grid problem?
MOSE BUCHELE: So I mean, what we have here is kind of limited energy capacity in this state. They say that we have enough to get through what they expect to be the peak time. But when you start seeing really high energy use, the kind of cushion of extra energy to keep things safe starts to diminish. Then they start asking for conservation. They want to have that extra cushion just in case a big power plant breaks down or something goes wrong, because they don’t want to throw the entire grid off balance. And so that’s why you’re seeing these conservation calls coming out, three so far this year.
IRA FLATOW: But you also have not just fossil fuels. You’re a huge state for wind and solar. What happened to those backups or main sources?
MOSE BUCHELE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’d say in the first part of this year, we were about 1/3 powered by renewable energy in Texas. A lot of people don’t know that about Texas, but really big with wind, increasing solar capacity. Those resources have actually really been coming through this year to provide a lot of needed energy on the grid.
But of course, the wind doesn’t always blow. And when you have reduced renewable capacity coupled with breakdowns at what they call thermal power plants, mostly our gas power plants, that can also kind of add to this energy crunch that we’ll see here.
IRA FLATOW: Following the news, it seemed that this tremendous heat had stopped the wind from blowing for a while. Is that right?
MOSE BUCHELE: Yeah, although this enters into a huge conflict that we see in the state that we’ve seen for years in the state, which is a kind of a running battle between renewable energy and fossil fuel interests. Wind has actually been performing about at expectation. The wind usually picks up in the evenings or in the kind of afternoons, evenings in the state. You’re not always going to see that resource available in the middle of the day during the summer heat. That’s why solar complements it so well. We have seen solar really pick up some of that slack.
IRA FLATOW: Well, it looks like the only ingredient you’re missing are the batteries, right, that you could store the stuff when the wind’s blowing and the sun is shining.
MOSE BUCHELE: That’s right. I mean, the big jargon word now in Texas has been dispatchable energy, right? Energy that you can kind of turn off and on as you need it. People that want to support the fossil fuel industry here, they kind of use that to try to justify building more gas plants.
But of course, there are other options. We are seeing growth in battery storage in the states, really big growth. Of course, it’s starting from very little. And we also hear a lot of calls for increased solar coming in because, obviously, in the summertime, the same conditions that create this really high electric demand, those are the exact same conditions that create solar energy. So it would complement it very well.
IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for explaining that to us, Mose.
MOSE BUCHELE: Yeah, thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: And good luck with the rest of the summer.
MOSE BUCHELE: We’re going to need it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Mose Buchele, energy and environment reporter for KUT Public Radio in Austin, Texas. And if you want to learn more about the Texas energy grid, you can head over to our website, sciencefriday.com/stateofscience. And Mose’s podcast, The Disconnect, Power, Politics, and the Texas Blackout, comes back for its second season.