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Population Growth Taxes Electric Grid

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

It’s not just record breaking heat that is pushing the state’s electric grid to the brink on a regular basis this summer. Staggering population growth in Texas is creating an unprecedented demand for electricity.

“Our demand has been growing in this state for several years now,” Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) spokesperson Dottie Roark said last week in a conference call, citing the number of new residents in the state.

The Texas population grew by almost 5 million people over the last decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“In terms of numbers, that’s more than any other state in the union,” State Demographer Lloyd Potter told KUT News.

Potter says rapid population growth causes many short term demands on public infrastructure.

“Infrastructure takes a long time. Building a new power plant. Identifying enough water and getting it to the growth area in a timely fashion. Building freeways,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that you have to plan decades in advance.”

In its last annual report, ERCOT predicted its energy reserve margin would drop to ten percent by 2015. ERCOT likes to keep a minimum of 12.5 percent energy reserves to keep the grid stable. But last month, ERCOT reported those reserves were plummeting to near six percent during peak hours of the day.

Scientists have noted other problems at the intersection of energy and demographics. In one recent study, biology researchers found that future energy supplies won’t be sufficient to curb global population growth.

Using a cross-country data set, we show that human population growth rates are negatively related to per-capita energy consumption, with zero growth occurring at ~13 kW, suggesting that the global human population will stop growing only if individuals have access to this amount of power. Further, we find that current projected future energy supply rates are far below the supply needed to fuel a global demographic transition to zero growth, suggesting that the predicted leveling-off of the global population by mid-century is unlikely to occur, in the absence of a transition to an alternative energy source.

ERCOT says we came close to an Energy Emergency Level 1 yesterday. That’s the least urgent on the energy emergency scale, but it does include a plea for homes and businesses to reduce their power consumption.

However, Monday’s peak energy demand, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. was 66,844 megawatts. That’s the fifth highest record in ERCOT’s history.

Last Thursday, ERCOT got as high as an Energy Emergency Level 2B, the last stage before rotating blackouts are imposed across Texas.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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