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Opinion: “Our Electric Grid Is Flying Too Close to the Sun”

Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-45, discusses the legislative session, sustainability, Texas' power grid and environmental issues on Austin 350 today.

by Rep. Erin Zwiener
Texas State Representative for District 45 (Hays County)

Let’s talk about the grid and the current Electric Reliability Council of Texas conservation notice.

1st off: #ERCOT’s current conservation notice is this:

Conserve electricity during peak hours, most importantly 3pm to 7pm. This conservation notice will remain in effect through at least Friday.

For my family, this means our thermostat is set at 80, the lights are off unless we absolutely need them, we’re not using large appliances, and we unplugged most of our other appliances.

All of these things save energy and help make sure our demand doesn’t exceed supply.

Why is that important? Because if demand exceeds supply, our grid starts to fail. And to avoid failure and catastrophic damage, ERCOT would have to order load shed. Which means some of us would experience power outages and we’d risk damage to our electrical infrastructure.

So why did ERCOT need to do this conservation notice?

I joined a briefing with Public Utility Commission and ERCOT this morning. They gave us three reasons for the difficulty they’re having meeting demand right now.

1. Unusually warm June = more demand
2. Unexpected number of “forced” outages at thermal generation (i.e. natural gas, coal, nuclear) facilities = less supply.
3. Lower than anticipated wind production = less supply

Any 1 would have been fine, but all 3 is taxing the grid.

A little bit about the forced outages. Forced outage means that something at the facility broke unexpectedly. The bulk of these outages are *not* maintenance.

Why we’re seeing so many forced outages right now? We don’t know yet. Does it have to do with the blackout? Maybe.

So, when ERCOT started to realize late last week and over the weekend that electricity supply might be tight this week, they began to implement measures to have industrial, large commercial, and government consumers conserve energy.

When they couldn’t be certain that that conservation would be enough to protect the grid and prevent brown- or blackouts, ERCOT issued the conservation notice asking everyday Texans to conserve electricity in their homes and their businesses.

I want to note that my impression is that ERCOT is now behaving in a more cautious manner than they did prior to the Texas blackouts. I’m not certain this situation would have resulted in a conservation notice last year, but ERCOT is exercising caution. This is good.

The other thing that’s different about this conservation notice is that they issued it for the entire week. Historically ERCOT has stopped and started conservation notices as needed. This time, they’ve told the public they anticipate high demand every afternoon all week.

This is a better way of communicating the conservation need with the general public. It would be confusing if they issued a new notice every day.

ERCOT was quite rightly criticized for poor communication during the blackout. It’s not perfect yet, but I see progress.

A lot of folks are asking how we’re possibly having issues with the grid right after the legislature passed bills to fix it. Two answers to this question:

1. The new laws haven’t had enough time to be implemented yet.
2. They don’t do enough anyways.

SB 3 is real progress toward improving the reliability of our grid. It mandates weatherization of electric generation and some natural gas infrastructure and makes it enforceable. Not a perfect bill but a step forward.

Unfortunately the bill only dealt with half the problem.

SB 3 and other legislation regarding the blackout focus on the supply of electricity. This problem has two components, supply and demand.

We did nothing to improve energy efficiency in Texas, which would dramatically reduce demand.
We also did very little to encourage the deployment of “demand response” technology. Demand response technology would allow Texans to be incentivized (i.e. paid) for conserving electricity during times of high demand.

Imagine if instead of ERCOT begging you to save power, your electric company offered you $20 off your bill if you let them remotely turn up the thermostat a few degrees to save electricity.

This is entirely possible, but we need to invest in our grid to make it widespread in Texas.

Other solution: We make rooftop solar more accessible for Texas homeowners and small businesses.

On a sunny day like today where demand is high, distributed generated (i.e. not at a big central plant) from solar panels is keeping the lights on and saving us all $.

How you ask? The ERCOT market charges variable prices for electricity, but generally a power company enters into a flat rate or net metering agreement with a property owner who has solar. That means on a high ERCOT price day like today, the cheapest power is distributed solar.

Unfortunately every electric provider in Texas treats distributed solar a little differently, making it time consuming and confusing for property owners to figure out if it makes financial sense for them to install solar.

This is the point in the thread where I note that I carried House HB 2275, which would have created a grant program to fund resiliency projects for local electric utilities, which could have included energy efficiency, demand response, and distributed generation.

We must invest in our local utilities and their resilience to protect everyday Texans.

HB 2275 passed the House with a supermajority. Unfortunately it was never referred to committee in the Senate. We added it to SB 3 in the House, but it didn’t make the final version.

However, we’ll have a second bite at the apple. This fall, we’ll have a special legislative session for redistricting and to spend $16.7 billion of federal money from the American Rescue Plan. I want to put that $ into infrastructure, particularly our electric infrastructure.

Hopefully this time the Texas Senate will be onboard. Our electric grid is flying too close to the sun, and we must make concrete investments to prevent the suffering of millions of Texans.

About Rep. Zwiener:

Erin Zwiener is an author, educator, and conservationist who represents District 45 (Hays County) in the Texas House of Representatives. According to her Facebook page, where this article first appeared, she’s committed to fighting for Texas’ values of healthy communities, inclusivity, and commonsense government.

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  1. Mike Maxim June 18, 2021

    Make solid investments in base load power generation facilities (natural gas COGEN). Stop trying to address the issue with wind and solar power generation (too dependent on environmental factors, hence less reliable)


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