AUSTIN, Texas – Fall is finally here, but it doesn’t feel like it outside. Parts of Texas are still hitting 90 degrees. The new CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) Pablo Vegas said in a press conference Thursday that there was more demand for energy on Wednesday than ever before on an October day, and the grid didn’t fail.

“We continue to be tested, we continue to pass those tests. That's how we rebuild the trust and the faith in the reliability of the electric grid,” Vegas said.

A year and a half ago, Texas went dark. The energy grid failed during a winter storm in 2021. Hundreds of people died.

The following June, the Texas legislature passed SB3, which required power plants to weatherize

“I think one thing to keep in mind is we had a really bad freeze in 2011 and basically didn't do anything after that, other than a few power companies here and there who took action to winterize the power plants,” said Dr. Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “But overall as a state, we have taken much more action after the 2021 storm than we did after the 2011 storm. That's good news and we should celebrate that good news, but we're not done. There's still more to do.”

This past summer, there was record-breaking demand for energy as temperatures soared above 100 degrees. ERCOT asked consumers to conserve energy, and it worked. The grid didn't fail. But there were reports of delayed maintenance on power plants so they could keep running during periods of high demand. Peter Lake, the Chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT), said the generators are being taken care of, but maintenance is now scheduled when demand is low. That means it could move up a week or be delayed a little bit depending on the weather.

"The control of the maintenance schedules of our fleet of generators is one of the important reforms that we've put in place since the winter storm," Lake said. "And that ensures that unlike in the past, when generators just picked whatever day or week they wanted to be out... we now can spread those outages over a longer period of time. So there's no single day or single week where we have an unusually high number of outages. And so that's just one of the many other another piece of the puzzle that ensures reliability and helps keep our grid strong."

Texas survived the hot months, but the real test is coming when temperatures drop. Dr. Webber said natural gas companies need to be pushed by the Railroad Commission or the Texas legislature to winterize. Natural gas companies didn't have as many weatherization requirements in SB3 that power plants did.

In August, the Railroad Commission implemented new rules for natural gas regulators. They say natural gas facilities must protect their infrastructure by Dec. 1. Fines for noncompliance can be between $3,000 and $1 million. In the meeting where the rules were adopted, RRC Commissioner Jim Wright said, “repeat and deliberate attempts to avoid compliance… will result in referral to the attorney general."

Critics are skeptical of this measure.

“Frankly, I think ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission in Texas have done most of the things we needed or expected within their purview,” said Dr. Webber. “The thing that hasn't been done that actually is critical is weatherization of the natural gas system. And that is regulated by the Railroad Commission. And the Railroad Commission has been pretty clear that they're not going to be too pushy on reliability of the gas system. And that remains our weak point. And that is tested in the winter, not the summer, because in the winter, the gas system can freeze.”

If gas systems freeze, that might impact the ability of power plants to operate.

Weatherization costs money, and the tab is being passed on to the consumer in the form of higher energy bills. 

“The good news is the grid is more reliable. The bad news is it's more expensive; we're paying for that reliability, and we're also paying for higher natural gas prices, which means we have higher electricity prices on top of their liability costs,” Dr. Webber said.

There are a few solutions to lowering costs.

“We need to reduce our exposure to high gas prices,” Dr. Webber said. “We need more energy efficiency. We need more demand response, and we need to build more power plants to increase the supply and therefore lower the cost.” 

Building more power plants would also increase reliability. 

“We need more dispatchable systems,” Dr. Webber said. “A dispatchable system is a system you can turn on or off. And that could be a dispatchable load, a big load we turn off, which could be like Bitcoin miners or data centers or even steel mills… So we need dispatchable load or dispatchable supply, which can be coal or gas, or nuclear, or geothermal, or wind and solar with storage. Some of that has come online, the storage has, but we haven't built new nuclear, geothermal in Texas, and gas and coal are struggling to get built as well because they're not making enough money. So we probably need a combination of that dispatchable supply and load to make it work most cheaply.” 

During the press conference, Lake said he was not aware of any new natural gas or coal plants coming online. He’s hoping to incentivize additional power generation in phase two of ERCOT’s market redesign.

“That is the task we were given by the legislature, and we will deliver on that,” Lake said. 

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