Since its creation in 1970, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has experienced blackouts (or in its vocabulary, rolling outages,) only three times. With the majority of that burden falling on residential properties, the community has cause for interest – but not concern – according to ERCOT’s leaders.
“We don’t expect this summer to have to resort to rotating outages,” said ERCOT Director of System Planning Warren Lasher. But, he says, “if we have another summer like 2011, the most extreme summer we’ve experienced, then we’re likely to have at least one day in which we start running short on reserves.”
Reserves are generators dedicated to picking up the slack when other generators fail, or when there is a greater electrical demand. ERCOT has enough reserves to generate over 3,000 megawatts (MW). To put that in perspective, one megawatt of electricity can power about 200 Texas homes during the hottest day of the year. Overall, ERCOT has a 74,000 MW capacity.
Even in the event of an electrical emergency, ERCOT says there’s a backup plan in place to cover extreme demand: temporary shutdown agreements ERCOT has with large users.
“These tend to be large industrial facilities,” Senior Analyst of Market Design and Development Paul Wattles said. “We call them during a grid emergency and they will turn off their load in response to system conditions.”
Though ERCOT has more than doubled in capacity since 1999, they face coverage challenges in the coming years. “In 2014, even if we get all of those projects, we will just barely make the reserve margin,” Lasher explained. “And in 2015, even if we get all of those projects, we still won’t make the target reserve margin. And that’s the real significant concern we face right now.”
One solution to this potentially grim scenario is incorporating products like smart meters into homes, in order to cut back on wasted energy. “There are a lot of people who aren’t even home between the hours of four and six p.m.,” argued Wattles. “They could be cooling a house that’s completely empty – or maybe the family dog is the only one there. If they had an incentive to turn down during the hours of four to six p.m., they could make a huge impact. These are the kinds of products and services ought to come out of this environment with these smart meters and with the wholesale market pricing that we may be seeing.”
ERCOT has a powerful incentive for saving energy: They say no man is an island, but ERCOT is.
AS ERCOT’s grid infrastructure is separate from the nation’s power grids, it can’t transfer or receive extra power from other regions. “Because we’re not connected to the rest of the world,” explained Director of Grid Operations Dan Woodfin, “we have to be very diligent and disciplined about managing our own affairs.”