By Terrance Turner
June 14, 2021 (Updated July 11, 2022)
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is asking Texans to reduce electricity use (again).
According to the Houston Chronicle, ERCOT late Sunday announced it was “asking Texans and Texas businesses to voluntarily conserve electricity” amid another record heat wave this summer. Such alerts are issued when ERCOT expects power reserves to fall below 2300 megawatts for 30 minutes or more, the agency said.
ERCOT’s alert projected roughly 80,200 megawatts of power generation would be available during Monday’s “tightest hour.” The agency forecasts the grid’s power needs will exceed that by about 100 megawatts around 5 p.m. (One megawatt is enough electricity to power about 200 homes on a hot summer day. So ERCOT needs to power about 20,000 more homes than it’s able to.)
Texas residents are being asked to conserve energy between 2 pm and 8 pm Monday afternoon. NBC DFW reports: “According to ERCOT, factors driving the need for this important action by customers:
- Low wind. While solar power is generally reaching near-full generation capacity, wind generation is currently generating significantly less than what it historically generated in this time period. Current projections show wind generation coming in less than 10 % of its capacity.
- Record high electric demand. The heat wave that has settled on Texas and much of the central United States is driving increased electric use. Other grid operators are operating under similar conservative operations programs as ERCOT due to the heatwave.”
On Sunday, more than a dozen record highs were set throughout the state as temperatures soared as high as 113 degrees. Houston shot up to 105 degrees, matching its highest temperature ever recorded in July. Sunday was the state’s second-hottest day since at least 1950, according to Maxar, a weather consulting firm. Texas is expected to top triple digits again this afternoon, according to multiple reports.
Texans are being urged to conserve electricity from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday.
This isn’t the first time that ERCOT has asked Texans to conserve electricity during sweltering summers. Last June, the agency asked residents to conserve power as much as possible through Friday, June 18. “A significant number of forced generation outages combined with potential record electric use for the month of June has resulted in tight grid conditions,” the company said on June 14. ERCOT claims that 11,000 megawatts (MW) of power are unavailable due to forced outages for electric generators. That’s enough to power 2.2 million homes, according to Austin NPR station KUT. (For context, “one MW typically powers around 200 homes on a summer day.”)
ERCOT, which controls most of Texas’ electrical power, forecasts that demand would exceed 73,000 MW. The daily record is 69,123, set on June 27, 2018. Webber Energy Group research associate Joshua Rhodes told The Texas Tribune that high temperatures cause people to crank up the A/C and thus strain the grid. Demand for electricity “is really driven by temperatures, and right now it is 99 degrees in Dallas, 97 degrees in Austin, and 97 degrees in Houston,” Webber Energy said.
ERCOT is asking Texans to set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, turn off lights and pool pumps, and unplug unneeded devices. The agency is also asking that Texas residents avoid using large appliances like ovens, dryers, and washing machines.
This latest crisis comes just four months after a punishing winter storm exposed the flaws in Texas’ power grid. Beginning on Feb. 15, temperatures plummeted as a wintry mix of rain, sleet, and snow blanketed the state. On Feb. 16, Dallas hit a new low of -2 degrees (its lowest temeprature since 1930). Houston dropped to 13 (its lowest since 1989). College Station was just 5. Galveston was 20. Austin plunged to 7 degrees, breaking a record set in 1903 (per the Austin-American Statesman). According to KSAT, San Antonio fell to 12; the city ended up setting record lows on Feb. 14-16 and 19-20, with lows of 13, 9, 12, 19, and 26 degrees, respectively.
That Tuesday morning (Feb. 16), Texas had 4.3 million power outages, more than any other state. By 12:15 pm, 4.5 million Texans (35% of state residents) were without power, according to the New York Times. The next day, temperatures slowly rose above freezing. On Wednesday (Feb. 17), Houston climbed to 37 degrees by 3 pm, as forecast by Houston affiliate KPRC. San Antonio reached 38 degrees, per KSAT. That evening, a South Texas nuclear plant came back online. 6,000 megawatts were added to the state grid, providing enough power for 1.2 million households. But the Dallas Morning News found that 1.7 million were still without power late Wednesday night.
Texas’ power grid — built specifically to avoid federal regulation — had collapsed under a few inches of snow.
Natural gas, coal and power plants (which provided much of Texas’ electric power) were knocked offline by the storm. Their infrastructure wasn’t built to support such low temperatures. And ERCOT was forced to institute “rolling blackouts” to avoid a total loss of power. But those blackouts lasted for days, in some cases. And the toll on Texans was steep.
Pipes froze and burst, flooding people’s homes. Boil water notices were issued across Texas as more than 12 million residents had their service disrupted, per MSN. Some took to boiling snow to flush their toilets or wash hands and plates. Almost half of Texans lost access to running water during the week of Feb. 14-20, according to a study by the University of Houston. 69% lost electric power at some point that week, the study found.
And many lost their lives. Without heat, power, or running water, many died of hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, or underlying conditions worsened by the storm. The official Texas death toll stands at 151. But a BuzzFeed News analysis revealed that the actual death toll was four to five times higher. BuzzFeed estimates that 700 Texans were killed by the winter storm.
In the aftermath, ERCOT came under heavy fire. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) blamed ERCOT for the disaster. “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said on Feb. 16. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather.” Later, it emerged that many of the ERCOT board members lived out of state, drawing the ire of Texans. Five members of the board resigned in February; two more left in early March. CEO Bill Magness was fired on March 3.
For his part, Abbott vowed to overhaul the state electric grid. But months passed without any legislation being signed. On June 8, Gov. Abbott signed into law a pair of bills that address the grid. Senate Bill 2 will shrink the number of seats on the ERCOT board from 16 to 11. It also makes the governor and lieutenant governor more involved in selection. Senate Bill 3 requires electricity providers on the grid managed by ERCOT to weatherize equipment. It also creates a statewide power outage alert system, according to NBC’s Houston affiliate KPRC.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner lamented that Senate Bill 3 doesn’t address supply. State lawmakers hadn’t provided for ERCOT to meet high demand, he said. “They didn’t fix the problem,” he told ABC 13. But Gov. Abbott touted “sweeping reforms” and “improved weatherization” to reporters when he signed the bills. “Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said.
Apparently not. Less than two weeks later, ERCOT issued a notice saying that it was struggling to keep up with demand amid record-high temperatures and asked Texans to conserve electric power. And as summer gave way to winter, more details emerged that painted an unflattering portrait of Abbott’s handling of the crisis.
Bill Magness, former CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, testified in court Wednesday that when he ordered power prices to stay at the maximum price cap for days on end during last year’s frigid winter storm and blackout — running up billions of dollars in bills for power companies — he was following the direction of Governor Greg Abbott.
At a joint public hearing in Austin in late February 2022, Magness said that former Public Utility Commission Chairman DeAnn Walker told him Abbott wanted them to do whatever was necessary to prevent rolling blackouts that left 4 million Texans without power.
“She told me the governor had conveyed to her if we emerged from rotating outages it was imperative they not resume,” Magness said that Wednesday. “We needed to do what we needed to do to make it happen.”
Power prices were kept at the max of $9000 per megawatt-hour, more than 150 times the normal price, according to the Houston Chronicle.