Gov. Abbott said reforms fixed ERCOT’s flaws. Why is the Texas power grid struggling?

ERCOT said grid’s reliability still ‘strong’ despite call for conservation

Electrical power lines near the Sand Hill Energy Center in Dell Valle on March 24, 2020.

SAN ANTONIO – On June 8, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared his confidence in the bills he signed to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) after a power shortage led to outages that lasted for days amid freezing temperatures and killed at least 151 people.

“Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said.

Less than one week later, ERCOT notified that Texans that due to tight grid conditions, they would need to reduce electric use to avoid the potential of rolling outages.

What went wrong? Abbott says the reforms haven’t had the time to take effect. But one energy expert says the legislation did not do enough to address problems in the state’s energy market, leading to concerns that ERCOT could be forced to mandate outages once again during the peak of summer temperatures.

What the legislation does

In the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri in February, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3, which required power plants and transmission lines to weatherize equipment in cases of extreme weather, both hot and cold. The law also allows for fines against companies that don’t comply with the mandate.

Gas facilities that are deemed “critical” by lawmakers must follow the requirement, while other fuel facilities do not have to weatherize.

Along with the mandate, the law also establishes a statewide emergency alert system and mandates more communication between participants who generate and distribute power.

Another law signed by Abbott, Senate Bill 2, changes how ERCOT is governed, giving lawmakers more say in determining who will sit on the grid’s board.

Where reforms fall short, according to an energy expert

“There are three dimensions to keeping the lights on. There’s supply, demand and transmission,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. “The Legislature only addressed one of those dimensions (supply), and they only issued halfway measures to shore it up.”

Cohan said in an interview with KSAT 12 that mandating weatherization for power generators is an important step in shoring up reliability during a winter storm. However, there is nothing in the new reforms will lead to a growth in supply, which becomes more necessary as Texas’ population continues to grow, according to Cohan.

“Electricity demand has been growing faster in Texas than almost anywhere else in the country,” Cohan said.

Because Texas’ energy market is deregulated, companies decide when to build new power plants. In other states, state public utility commissions decide how much new power is needed.

“We don’t have that central planning to be sure that we have as much as we need,” Cohan said.

That’s why other states do not generally have outages as often as Texas has had this past year, Cohan said. And because Texas is on its own grid, it cannot import energy from plants in neighboring states like the other two grids that make up the rest of the contiguous United States.

Summer outlook

In a media call on Monday, ERCOT officials said that several unexpected power plant outages led to Monday’s conservation call, which is in effect until Friday.

Roughly 12,000 megawatts of generation were offline on Monday, enough to power more than two million homes in summer heat.

Officials, however, would not go into further detail about the causes of the outages.

“We’re left completely in the dark as to which coal and gas plants are down and why,” Cohan said.

The way it stands, ERCOT’s contingency plan is thin, Cohan said. So the grid can handle slow winds — which decreases the output of wind energy — or some power plant outages, but it cannot handle both.

“They weren’t ready for two or three things to go badly at once, which is just an inadequate way to prepare for extreme events,” Cohan said.

Though this week’s temperatures were above average throughout most of the state of Texas, conditions can get more extreme as it gets closer to summer’s peak temperatures in July and August. The grid conditions don’t “bode well” for Texas, Cohan said.

ERCOT and Abbott attempted to downplay concerns, stating that the grid’s reliability is still “strong” despite the conservation notice, but Cohan still had his concerns.

“This is the sort of weather that a well-functioning Texas power grid should have no trouble meeting,” Cohan said. “These shouldn’t be such close calls.”

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About the Author:

Fares Sabawi has been a journalist in San Antonio for four years. He has covered several topics, but specializes in crime, courts, open records and data visualization.