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ERCOT urges power plants to skip scheduled maintenance this week as temperatures climb

 The inside of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in Taylor is seen in 2018. ERCOT manages the electric grid and power flow for 24 million Texans.
Julia Reihs
The inside of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in Taylor is seen in 2018. ERCOT manages the electric grid and power flow for 24 million Texans.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, has said energy could be tight for the next few days.

Temperatures across Texas are expected to climb this week, and that has officials at ERCOT concerned about how increased energy use could create a potential emergency for the state’s power grid.

Mose Buchele, who covers energy and the environment for KUT in Austin and hosts the podcast The Disconnect, joined the Standard with more about why and what to expect.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What exactly is this warning that ERCOT sent out last week?

Mose Buchele: I think the important place to start here is that in the springtime, a lot of power plants shut down for scheduled maintenance. They warn the grid operator that they’re going to shut down to kind of get things ready for the hotter summer months.

And what ERCOT did last Friday was basically tell those power plants, “hold your roll, don’t shut down – we might need you to come online, because it’s going to be hotter than we thought it would be.”

So you have a combination of the temperatures climbing – I think it’s going to be in the high 80s or low 90s in some places across the state. Can you tell me a little bit more about why some of the state’s power capacity is not online at the moment or might not be online soon?

Yeah, it’s pretty standard. Basically, in the springtime and in the fall, when we expect milder temperatures than maybe in the summer or winter, power plants do scheduled work. They’ll warn ERCOT that they’re not going to be available to produce power in order to be online when it gets hotter.

What we’re seeing is, increasingly, there aren’t any milder seasons anymore. We’re getting hotter and hotter springs. We’re getting extreme heat in the fall as well. And so this normal schedule of things has been interrupted. And people will obviously point to global warming and climate change as the culprit for this.

So last Friday, ERCOT sent out a notice to power plants saying, “we said it was okay if you shut down, but actually, we would like you to come back online to be available because we’re going to see higher temperatures than we typically would.”

And basically what that translates to is that people are going to turn their AC on. There’s going to be more demand on the grid. And so we need to make sure that the power plants are available to supply electricity to meet that demand.

Now, is that a request by ERCOT? Are they saying pretty please or do they have a hammer of any kind or any authority?

That’s a great question. They have more of a hammer now than they used to. After the 2021 statewide blackout, ERCOT gave itself more power to command and control these things. ERCOT has the ability to say, “no, we need you available and you can do your maintenance some other time when it doesn’t look like we’ll need you.”

I hasten to add: This is a measure that they’re taking ahead of time in the event that it might be necessary. We’re not sure that this is going to be a serious problem now. But, they want to make sure they have this added capacity available in case the demand spikes.

So to me, it sounds like you’re saying people should monitor this situation. But are we going to get into a scenario where ERCOT is asking people to not use their appliances or cut power or something like that, as we’ve seen before?

Yeah, I was just online looking at their forecast this morning. And, as things stand right now, I wouldn’t imagine we’re going to get any conservation requests.

If they start seeing demand get close to the amount of power that can be supplied by the grid, they would request that people try to conserve electricity.

Well, the really hot weather is, unfortunately, not too far away from us. So is this any signal of what’s to come this summer? Or is it just circumstances of the current situation that resulted in this alert?

This raises a lot of questions because ERCOT has traditionally planned around the hottest days of the summer. That’s when we need power plants and all energy generators to be available.

And if you start seeing situations where these facilities can’t shut down for maintenance in what used to be the milder times of year to prepare for the summer, then people start to worry about what will happen in the summer when we get these super extreme hot days.

If the power plants aren’t ready for that because they haven’t been allowed to prepare for it, that has raised concern, and it does raise concern.

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Patrick M. Davis | Texas Standard