Energy & Environment

Texans Set Electricity Use Record As Questions Arise Over Using Old Power Plant in Houston

Texas is breaking its record for electricity use. It happened Monday with demand peaking around 5PM and is expected to be repeated most of this week as the hot weather continues. But there’s a controversy over how to meet that demand for electricity in Houston.

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Transmission lines in northwest Harris County
Transmission lines in northwest Harris County

Bill Magness is chief of ERCOT, the quasi-governmental council that manages the Texas electricity market. Magness updated the ERCOT board on how the summer was going.

"That is the first time we've been over 70,000 megawatts on the ERCOT system," Magness told the board Tuesday.

The 70,000 megawatt use late in the afternoon compares with around 43,000 megawatts used early in the morning when people are just getting up.

But with the record use, can the state's network of power plants keep up?

"Performance of the system has been great; obviously on a day we saw over 70,000 megawatts and didn't have emergency alerts or anything like that, great performance by the system," Magness said.

Yet, earlier this year, ERCOT was worried that in Houston demand for electricity would exceed the supply. So it signed on a contract with power generator NRG to keep an old power plant in northeast Houston operational as a kind of an emergency backup. NRG had wanted to shut down the plant but ERCOT agreed to pay NRG roughly $2 million a month during the summer to have the plant available for this and the next two summers.

But hold on. When demand statewide hit a record this week, ERCOT says that old NRG plant wasn't needed. At ERCOT’s board meeting, Beth Garza, ERCOT's independent monitor, asked if the old NRG plant would ever be needed to meet record demand as was seen this week.

"If not, we have to question, why are we paying for this unit?” said Garza.

ERCOT says it can opt out of the agreement with NRG if things change. And by 2018, ERCOT says it likely won't need the old plant because by then a big, new set of transmission lines will be complete, bringing power in from plants in East and North Texas.

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