Just in case all this temperate whether has lulled you into the perception that the Texas power grid doesn't have the thinnest margin of safety between lights on and lights out anywhere in the country, here's a reminder: Summer is coming.
ERCOT, the grid operator for most of Texas, says the odds this summer are "significant" that it will have to declare an "energy emergency alert," in which it implores us all to dial up our thermostats because electricity demand is edging perilously close to supply. If the two get too close, ERCOT may have to institute rolling outages to prevent an uncontrolled blackout.
Dallas-based Luminant, the state's largest generator, will bring two mothballed units back online, injecting more than 1,000 megawatts into the grid, or enough to power roughly 500,000 homes. And belts of wind turbines across West Texas and the Gulf Coast could kick as much as 925 megawatts. But if we experience sustained high temperatures that even approach the unbelievable string of triple-digit days in 2011 -- or if a large number of power plants are out of service for some reason all at once -- it won't be enough.
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"In these scenarios, the ERCOT system would likely have insufficient resources available to serve customer demand," the grid operator warns in characteristically anodyne fashion (you can read the preliminary seasonal assessment it released Friday here).
It's made all the more likely because the odds for a hot Texas summer look good. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting above average temperatures. State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said last month that this string of dry years is on track to become the drought of record. Water is as vital to power generation as it is to farmers and ranchers. ERCOT warns that "potential risks to generation capacity persist while Texas remains in widespread drought conditions."
There are two reasons the state finds itself in this predicament. For starters, the population keeps growing, placing an increasing burden on the grid. Secondly, the energy-only market created by the Legislature, which doesn't subsidize providers to build extra generating capacity, has failed to entice the kind of financing needed to build new power plants. Electricity rates are low due to a natural gas glut, and so are revenues for generators.