Energy & Environment

Texas Electric Grid Bracing For Another Big Test

The grid passed last summer’s “make it or break it” test. The next one will be harder.

Wind turbines near Fort Stockton, Texas

Texas is bracing for another summer of record-breaking power demand, but the state’s backup power reserves will be at an all-time low.

The situation means a heightened risk for blackouts or brownouts, though the grid survived such disruptions during its last big test this year.

ERCOT, the grid operator for most of the state, expects demand to reach almost 75,000 megawatts in the coming summer, topping last summer’s record. But this time around, the grid will face the pressure with even lower reserves.

How we got here

ERCOT says the drop in the state’s planning reserve margin down to 8.1 percent is due to a handful of natural gas plants and renewable energy projects being delayed or canceled (for various economic reasons.)

Since the grid operator’s last forecast in May, three natural gas plants and five wind farms that would have added more than 2,800 megawatts of capacity to the grid have been cancelled. Other wind, solar and natural gas projects have been delayed until later in 2019.

The West Texas oilfield’s growing need for electricity has added to the problem.

ERCOT says “significant” oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin continues to drive power demand, and the grid’s growth isn’t expected to keep up with the boom.

“The annual growth rate in peak demand in West Texas is forecasted to be around 8 percent through 2023,” ERCOT said in a statement. “Whereas ERCOT's annual system-wide load growth rate is 2 percent during the same time.”

So…will the lights stay on?

ERCOT officials say the grid has handled big tests before, notably when power demand broke records earlier this year.

“ERCOT's ability to meet Texans' growing power needs through the record-setting summer of 2018 was supported by the actions taken by power suppliers and consumers, and the policymakers who are committed to the success of the ERCOT market,” the grid operator’s CEO Bill Magness said in a statement. “We anticipate the same type of focus on system performance as we head into another year with tight reserves.”

On July 19, peak electric demand hit an all-time high of 73,473 megawatts. The peak expected for the summer of 2019 is 651 megawatts higher, at 74,853. (And again, the grid will have lower reserves.)

“There certainly is a greater risk that we would enter into an energy emergency situation,” said Pete Warnken, ERCOT’s Manager of Resource Adequacy. “But we don’t know at the present time what the frequency of that might be, or whether we’ll enter them at all.”

Warnken said a lot still depends on the weather – how hot it gets, how much the wind blows – and if power plants have unexpected outages. (Last summer was very, very hot, by the way.)

The picture of what lies ahead will be clearer when ERCOT releases its next forecast in the spring.

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