Texas called for energy conservation Tuesday as extreme heat spiked electricity demand

People cool off at Barton Springs as temperatures rose to 105 degrees on July 13, 2022. (Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune, Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune)

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Texas’ grid operator asked residents to use less electricity between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tuesday as the demand for power soared because of high temperatures.

Enough power ended up being available but an atypical number of power plants that use coal or natural gas has been forced offline, causing the conservation request, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Wind turbines were also producing relatively less power compared to past summers.

Demand rose above 79,000 megawatts at 4 p.m., according to ERCOT, which manages the power supply for most of the state. That's just below the record for highest energy use – 80,148 megawatts – set last July.

Weather officials issued excessive heat warnings for a large swath of the state, including central and southeast Texas, where the heat index could reach 117 or 118 degrees.

Such extreme temperatures are worsened by climate change, which makes heat waves last longer and reach higher temperatures than they would otherwise. The Texas State Climatologist expects to continue seeing a rise in the number of 100-degree days and reported that recent decades have already seen “a substantial increase in extreme monthly heat.”

ERCOT asked residents to conserve energy as an early step to ensure it can continue to provide power smoothly. But the alert undoubtedly reminded some of the deadly 2021 winter storm, when voluntary requests for power reduction fell short. Operators cut power to millions to prevent the grid’s total collapse as freezing temperatures gripped the state.

The grid operator cast Tuesday’s request for conservation as a more routine action, stressing that the state wasn’t in an emergency situation.

“Voluntary conservation is a widely used industry tool that can help lower demand for a specific period of peak demand time, which is typically late afternoon into the evening hours,” the organization said in a press release.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates electricity, in a news release repeated the call for conservation.

The state enacted major changes to the grid in 2021, such as requiring companies to insulate plants better against cold weather, but lawmakers entered 2023 pushing for more. During this year’s legislative session, they decided they needed to get more on-demand power built on the grid, as opposed to wind and solar power that cannot run 24/7.

The policymakers created a low-interest loan program for companies that build new natural gas-fueled power plants, which still needs to be approved by voters in November. They meanwhile excluded wind and solar projects from school district tax breaks that helped incentivize renewable energy companies to build here. The changes approved last month are still months, if not years, away from being implemented.

To lower energy use, ERCOT recommends that residents raise the thermostat by a degree or two if safe, refrain from running large appliances such as the washing machine and dryer and turn off and unplug lights and other appliances that aren’t needed.

Businesses can likewise turn off unneeded lights and equipment and shut off air conditioning units after business hours.

Government agencies such as city and county offices should also do what they can to reduce how much electricity they are using, the ERCOT notice said.

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