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Ongoing heat expected to test power grid again

As the heat wave continues, the power grid will once again get tested this week. (CBS Austin){p}{/p}
As the heat wave continues, the power grid will once again get tested this week. (CBS Austin)

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After power demand nearly met supply Friday and threatened power outages, the ongoing heat wave is expected to test the Texas power grid again this week.

According to ERCOT's power supply and demand chart, peak demand exceeded 71 GW at 5 p.m. Monday. This early May peak is not too far off from the all-time summer record demand of 74.8 GW set in August 2019. Monday's forecasts exceed the original May record peak demand.

Between 3:30 and 6 p.m. Monday, demand stayed above 70 GW. Monday's energy demand is the highest ERCOT forecasts this week, but that could always change.

ERCOT provided CBS Austin the following statement Monday:

ERCOT continues to forecast sufficient supply of power to meet demand as unseasonably high temperatures remain in place across much of Texas. ERCOT will continue to deploy all available tools to manage the grid reliably and coordinate closely with the Public Utility Commission, generation resource owners and transmission utilities to ensure they are also prepared.

Joshua Rhodes is a research associate for the Webber Energy Group at The University of Texas at Austin, and said demand peaks like this will be a new normal earlier in the year moving forward because of climate change.

"A changing climate doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures. It means more erratic weather, so seeing things like these heat comes more often or like we saw in Winter Storm Uri with more events like that eventually as well," Rhodes said. "In general, it does mean the climate will warm. That means it will need more air conditioners running to keep the inside of our homes cooled, which means we’ll need more electricity because all those air conditioners are running on electricity."

This weekend's heat already brought challenges to Austin Energy.

On Saturday, Austin Energy had to cut power to about 3,600 South Austin customers because of a surge in demand.

"The circuits serving this area were experiencing high energy use and this action was taken to address that overload. These actions were not the result of an ERCOT mandate, but instead were necessary to safely operate Austin Energy's distribution system. Austin Energy restored service to affected customers through the early evening and all service was back online by approximately 7:30 p.m.," an Austin Energy spokesperson said in a statement.

On Monday, Austin Energy officials said they are in the middle of conducting an after-action review to see what exactly went wrong and how to prevent a repeat.

Elton Richards, Austin Energy's vice president of electric system field operations, also doubled down on the need to cut off power to these customers to prevent even more outages.

"As [emergency command center operators] saw the load getting critical, they did look for alternative paths to maintain those customers, but we had to shed load on those customers to prevent damage to equipment and also to prevent the outage from being larger," Richards said. "We’ve got a director at the emergency command center to conduct an after action review to see what we could have done better to prevent this."

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Renewable energy carried a large share of the burden to meet demand Monday. At the peak, wind and solar energy contributed almost 30 GW of energy to the power grid. Wind provided most of this energy, but solar peaked during the afternoon hours when the sun beat hardest on Texas.

Rhodes said the performance of renewable energy on Monday provides a solution to heat waves and power demand peaks likely hitting Texas earlier in the year.

"The same sun that makes it hot outside and making us consume air conditioning also makes solar work really well. That’s what fuels the solar panels and makes electricity. I think solar is a really good option for Texas," Rhodes said.

ERCOT's dashboards revealed there was more cushion between energy supply and demand on Monday than there was on Friday.

Then, supply and demand almost matched each other around 8 p.m. However, that demand was at less than 60 GW. This was due to the fact several power plants went offline to complete routine maintenance. ERCOT provided CBS Austin a statement Friday saying they asked these plants to postpone maintenance.

Rhodes said a boost in renewable energy facilities could also solve the issue of plants being offline for maintenance when a heat wave hits earlier than expected.

"All types of power plants will need some kind of maintenance. But in general, solar facilities and wind facilities have a lower number of moving parts. A lower number of moving parts means you need less maintenance overall. And if there is a failure in one part of a solar field, there’s still a lot of it left to operate. But if you have a failure in a small part of a larger power plant like a gas or coal facility, it can take the whole thing offline," Rhodes said.

Some plants are still offline because ERCOT sets a window of September 15 to May 15 for plants to complete this maintenance, but not as many are undergoing this compared to last week.

Rhodes said until more solar and wind facilities are built, ERCOT may want to think about moving up these deadlines.

"We might have to get better at scheduling that, and I think that’s something we can do to make sure we have all of the power plants when we need them," Rhodes said. "I think we’re going to have to take a look at that to make sure we’re doing that in the smartest way possible, but power plants are big complex machines. They do need maintenance, just like all of our cars need oil changes. You can’t operate a car while it’s getting an oil change. You have to do maintenance some time."

Whether or not Texas prioritizes renewable energy facilities, Rhodes said something needs to change.

The energy expert said Texas needs to improve energy efficiency, after being near the bottom of the list in the U.S. in this category.

"Texas is pretty close to the bottom of the stack when it comes to being an efficient state," Rhodes said. "There are other states that have adopted energy efficiency codes that are much more stringent than us, and they use less energy overall, which can be helpful. I think that’s something Texas can work on moving forward."

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