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ERCOT urges power plants to stay online with high demand for electricity expected this weekend

Power lines in South Austin during February's winter storm.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Electricity demand is expected to surge to near-record levels this weekend as unseasonably warm weather spreads across the region.

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Texas’ power grid operator is preparing for statewide electricity demand to surge to near-record levels this weekend as unseasonably warm weather spreads across the region.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Tuesday requested some power plant operators postpone any planned outages for maintenance and end outages already in progress to ensure they are online to meet demand as Texans crank up air conditioners to keep cool.

ERCOT, which manages about 90% of the state’s power load, said in a statement, it is not planning to ask consumers to conserve energy this weekend as it predicts there will be enough capacity.

As of Wednesday, the grid’s electricity load was forecast to peak just below 70 gigawatts on both Sunday and Monday as daytime high temperatures were expected to reach the 90s in the Austin, Dallas, and Houston areas and triple digits in cities such as San Antonio, Laredo, and Midland.

According to Doug Lewin, who heads the energy consultant group Stoic Energy, demand for electricity this weekend is likely to surpass the grid’s previous high for May of roughly 67 gigawatts set in 2018. The all-time high for demand in summer is 74.8 gigawatts.

At full capacity, Texas’s power grid could easily manage the electricity load this weekend, explained Lewin, but the early arrival of summer-like weather has coincided with a time when power plant operators typically shut down for scheduled maintenance.

“It’s not super uncommon for us to see temperatures like that in July and August. Why is this giving us problems in May? The reason is because these plants do go down en masse for planned maintenance this time of year because we don’t expect April or May to have July-type temperatures.”

Lewin said ERCOT recognized a surge in demand due to the hot weather this weekend could overwhelm the grid’s capacity, and possibly lead to blackouts.

“The entire thermal fleet – and thermal means coal, gas, and nuclear – is about 66 gigawatts,” said Lewin. “As of early this week, a little more than 20 gigawatts was offline. So right about 30% were offline for maintenance,” he said.

ERCOT continues working to implement stricter controls on how and when power plants can schedule maintenance as part of regulatory reforms enacted in response to the deadly winter storm blackouts in February 2021. Many of the new rules, however, have not yet been implemented.

In April 2021, ERCOT urged Texans to conserve energy as demand for electricity nearly surpassed supply. At that time, many power plants were offline for maintenance. A couple of months later, the grid operator again called on residents to reduce how much electricity they were using.

Lewin stressed long-term solutions to the problem will require not only increasing the amount of power available but reducing demand through greater efficiencies because unpredictable weather is now a fact of life.

“We’re going to get more and more of these with each passing year. This is a shift that we have to make as a species: it’s that climate change is not a 2050 thing. It is a 2022 thing. We are living in an already altered climate,” he said.

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Joseph Leahy anchors morning newscasts for NPR's statewide public radio collaborative, Texas Newsroom. He began his career in broadcast journalism as a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio in 2011. The following year, he helped launch Delaware's first NPR station, WDDE, as an afternoon newscaster and host. Leahy returned to St. Louis in 2013 to anchor local newscasts during All Things Considered and produce news on local and regional issues. In 2016, he took on a similar role as the local Morning Edition newscaster at KUT in Austin, before moving over to the Texas Newsroom.
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