Texas Worried About Not Having Enough Electricity in 2012

2011 was a challenging year for the operators of the Texas electricity grid.  2012, however, isn’t likely to be any easier. This according to ERCOT who holds the responsibility of insuring the reliability of the Texas grid. There are a large number of power plants that are scheduled to be decommissioned over the coming months and still others that will be switched on later than initially expected.

Texas consumers have already felt the impact of a loss in electricity capacity.  In 2011 significant electricity capacity was lost due to plant closings.  The problem was made worse when freezing temperatures caused mechanical failure at several power stations.  Texas had to take the unusual step of importing electricity from the Mexican electricity grid.

ERCOT is proactively reaching out to electricity operators within the Texas grid and asking them to confirm the accuracy of expected go-live dates for projects that will begin contributing electricity to the grid.  Texas will have to monitor their power reserve margins, more closely than ever.

The challenges being faced by ERCOT right now are a complex mix of unprecedented weather behavior, economic pressures, and a set of new environmental protection agency rules that could lead to existing power plants being turned off because they will not be compliant with the new rules. The sharp drop in Texas electricity rates in recent years has lead to less money being invested in new production.

2011 will likely be remembered in Texas for weather extremes the likes of which have not been seen in living memory. The weather challenges faced by the Texas electricity grid started early in the year as February saw an ice storm that effectively shut down transportation and kept Texans in their homes where they turned on their heaters and demanded record electricity output from the grid. The record demand along with weather-related failures at certain key points in the power generation infrastructure forced ERCOT to implement controlled blackouts.

This was followed later in the year by record high temperatures that again taxed the grid to a straining point. In addition to the extreme temperatures, 2011 is also notable for the continuation of an historic drought in Texas as wells as unrelenting wildfires.

The timing of the harsh onslaught of natural disasters is somewhat ironic considering that while dealing with these the Texas electricity system is also beginning to realize the impact of recent new EPA rules. The true impact of the new rules has been debated for a while but the time is rapidly approaching when the theoretical impact is giving way to real life impact as electricity plants that are unable to meet the new rules are closing down at precisely the time when Texas is struggling to generate enough electricity to meet demand.  The impact of the new rules is not being felt just in Texas.  The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the organization in charge of maintaining the reliability of the North American grid, is lobbying the Obama administration for more time to comply with the new regulations in order to prevent possible electricity disruptions.

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Tags: EPA, electricity, policy, texas

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Comment by Dennis Cheslik on January 12, 2012 at 6:49pm

Excellent overview of the state of our power grid concerns here in Texas.

Comment by David Eggleton on January 11, 2012 at 9:54am

Evan wrote: "it would be interesting to see some numbers on the contribution of the household sector to Texas' overall load shape during peak periods."

Indeed.  Fairly late to adopt aggressive efficiency improvements, the state might benefit from the official launch of the 1000 Home Challenge, which focuses and amplifies use reduction efforts of willing and ready ratepayers, this year.

Comment by Evan Mills on January 11, 2012 at 3:15am

The underlying problem isn't environmental regulations; it's balancing supply and demand in a jointly sustainable and disaster-resilient fashion.  See last year's ACEEE study, the latest in a series of looks at how Texas can offset the need for new energy supply with improved customer-side efficiency improvements.  A more global view is here.

According to the last major federal assessment of climate change impacts on the US (including the energy sector), the kinds of natural disasters hitting the Texas (and national) grid are exactly what we can expect more of thanks to human emissions of greenhouse-gases and what can, in turn, ultimately be mitigated with improved environmental regulations.  Rising CO2 emissions will translate to more windstorms, wildfire, flooding, and lightning strikes.  These will be coupled with supply-side challenges such as reduced water availability for power-plant cooling together with greater peak electricity demand under ever-increasing summertime temps.
In any case, to add relevance to this particular forum, it would be interesting to see some numbers on the contribution of the household sector to Texas' overall load shape during peak periods.  I suspect it's quite significant, and that the kinds of strategies practiced by members of Home Energy Pros could help close the supply-demand gap in a non-polluting and cost-effective way.

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