The Texas grid operator declared an emergency last week, but it didn’t end up cutting off residents’ lights and air conditioning as the state roasted.
Next time, everyone might not be so lucky.
A combination of a growing population, a booming economy and a heat wave pushed demand on the state’s main electric grid to previously unseen levels this summer, including 10 all-time records for demand. That record demand was accompanied by repeated requests for customers to conserve their own energy.
With many of those conditions projected to worsen in coming years and accusations flying that Texas has not fixed electricity problems after 2021 Winter Storm Uri caused deadly blackouts, there are concerns that the grid of the nation’s largest energy state could crash when there is another bout of severe weather. Although the grid operator known as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) stopped short of cutting off power this month, the emergency was a stark reminder of the tightrope operators must walk on a transitioning grid — and an omen of future challenges, according to observers.
ERCOT, which handles about 90 percent of the state’s power demand, ultimately entered emergency conditions on Sept. 6, allowing it to tap emergency reserves and leaving the state on the verge of rolling blackouts.
In the summer of 2022, ERCOT notched 79,830 megawatt of electricity demand on a toasty July day, at the time the grid’s peak record. In 2023, that wouldn’t have even been among the top 15 demand peaks.
According to preliminary data, the grid hit its all-time record of 85,464 MW on Aug. 10, a 7 percent increase over last year’s record. That well exceeded the prediction of an 82,739 MW peak in an ERCOT report earlier this year.
And with Texas’ population growing anywhere from 1 to 2 percent every year, demand doesn’t seem likely to drop anytime soon.
The high thirst for electricity did not directly cause the emergency conditions. In fact, Sept. 6 did not even see the highest demand that week. But the extended use of power plants and transmission lines can strain the system even on less intense days, reducing the margin for error.
To help dampen demand, ERCOT has issued more than a dozen conservation notices this summer.
But ERCOT could be doing even more to tamp down demand, said Matthew Boms, executive director of the Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance, which represents renewable energy companies. That could include steps to encourage energy efficiency or better demand response programs, which could pay customers for limiting their power use in the evenings.
“All these voluntary calls from ERCOT to conserve are great, but we know that people respond when they’re compensated,” Boms said. “Demand response is the easiest, quick Band-Aid solution, and if there was compensation involved, you could be sure that more consumers would participate.”