AUSTIN — The state’s electrical grid operator is warning new federal regulations could drive up the price of electricity and potentially lead to power outages in parts of the state.
The last time Texans faced large-scale outages was February 2011. An unusually severe arctic blast caused several power plants to trip offline at the same time electrical demand soared, forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to initiate temporary rolling blackouts as they worked to quickly get the situation under control.
“We are monitoring 24/7 the power grid here in Texas that serves 90 percent of the electricity demand,” Vice President of Grid Planning and Operations Ken McIntyre told KVUE on a tour of ERCOT’s high-tech control room in Taylor.
Operators at ERCOT coordinate a complex electrical orchestra, ensuring output satisfies demand while monitoring conditions across the state on giant computer screens. When faced with critical power shortages in February 2011, they worked to marshal reserve resources and coordinate power suppliers to keep the electricity flowing.
“Whenever there is a challenge on the grid — so if we have extreme weather and the demand changes rapidly — these guys are ready,” said McIntyre. “They have the tools, they have the data, that they can react as quick as they need to to make sure we can keep those lights on to those customers in Texas.”
The perfect storm of 2011 was a scenario ERCOT forecasters categorize as a “one in ten years” event, which is factored into the grid operator’s long-term strategy. Director of System Planning Warren Lasher says forecasters consider factors such as population growth and usage trends in order to predict how much energy Texans will need down the road.
“Our recent capacity demand reserves report shows that we will have adequate reserves at least for the next three to four years,” said Lasher.
Natural gas accounted for 56.6 percent of Texas’ generation capacity as of May 2014; followed by coal at 23 percent, wind at 13.3 percent and nuclear at 6 percent. In 2013, 40.5 percent of electricity used by Texans came from natural gas and 37.2 percent from coal. Nuclear power accounted for 11.6 percent of use and wind for 9.9 percent.
A report released by ERCOT this weekraises concerns over new federal regulations aimed to curb pollution. The report suggests the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan and planned Regional Haze Program are among the most burdensome of a slate of regulations.
If all went into effect, the report warns compliance costs could cause plant owners to close up shop rather than pay for costly upgrades. Coal plants in particular could be hardest hit, and the loss of power from coal could force Texans to rely even more on natural gas — the cost of which ERCOT expects to increase.
The loss of power from any shuttered plants would have to be offset by new projects, which ERCOT says take time to develop. The report poses an alarming scenario in which several plants shut down with little or no warning, leading to localized power outages as grid operators scramble to adjust. It also warns the combined effect of regulations could cause consumer prices to increase 20 percent by 2020.
Yet some of those regulations are only in the proposition stages, and most have compliance deadlines of three or more years. If implemented, the Clean Power Plan would set a final compliance goal of 2030.
“To the extent that these plans are still being developed or implementation plans are being developed, these reliability concerns can get incorporated into those regulations as they’re finalized,” Lasher told KVUE.
At the same time, Lasher predicts the role of renewable energy will increase. Wind power set a single instant record in 2014, supplying 39.4 percent of Texans’ electricity at 2:12 a.m. March 31. Wind power generation is expected to increase from 12,983 MW in 2014 to 20,048 MW in 2015, and nearly double 2013 output by 2017.
“The expectation has to be that these resources are going to become more prevalent on the grid, regardless of what the environment regulation changes are,” said Lasher.
As for now, operators in Taylor will continue to maintain a quiet vigil as another winter begins. Though no major arctic events are in the forecast yet this holiday season, McIntyre says his staff will be ready to keep the lights on if the weather takes another turn for the worse.
“Absolutely,” said McIntyre. “So this Christmas think of the operator that’s watching over you, and ensuring that those Christmas lights stay on.”
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- On December 19, 2014