This Summer's Texas Blackout Avoidance Strategy: Diesel Generators and Voluntarily Going Dark

Seeing as how the Texas climate these days is predisposed to extremes, the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas passed a rule change last week they hope will prevent another epic, frozen February blackout or a grid driven to the brink by gawd-awful Texas heat.

We already use a system that works like this: Certain large customers whose load is a megawatt-hour or greater volunteer to have power curtailed during grid emergencies. It's a way to ration electricity, and these volunteers are paid for their trouble. Problem is, committing a whole megawatt is tough for a business, especially when a voluntary outage can stretch for 28 hours, as they did during the great rolling blackout of 2011. It turned a lot of businesses off to the idea, ERCOT senior analyst Paul Wattles tells Unfair Park.

So the PUC has opened the program up to smaller customers, who can now sacrifice 100 kilowatts for the sake of electric grid stability. Wattles says the change is intended to attract more participants, and more electric capacity, to the program. For example, say a couple of grocery chains want to team up for this program. But one megawatt is a lot of electricity to give up, and if one chain doesn't hold up its end of the bargain during a grid emergency, the other is left on the hook to turn out lights and jack up thermostats. One hundred kilowatts, on the other hand, is a bit more manageable. Or at least that's the idea.

(According to this January report from the Environmental Defense Fund, ERCOT lags behind other big grid operators in this sort of emergency conservation program, called "demand response." The amount of electricity ERCOT expects to receive from its demand response system amounts to just over 2 percent of peak electricity demand -- that's when we need it most -- the EDF said. PJM, a grid operator in the Mid-Atlantic/Midwest, hit 9 percent -- this despite that fact Texas leads the nation in deployment of the sort of "smart meters" needed for stuff like this to work.)

The other component ERCOT's new rules is to essentially expand the definition of what is considered a "generator." If a hard freeze hits, or a heat wave sends Texans scuttling for the thermostats, ERCOT can now call upon a business like a data center or a coastal water treatment plant, both of which may have diesel generators capable of producing more electricity than they actually need. ERCOT will pay them to be on standby during emergencies to inject electricity into the grid if needed.

Question is, will anybody bite given the considerable discretion ERCOT wields regarding how long it can keep their lights out? "This has been a pretty big issue for the last year," Wattles says. "We've always had a provision that it's nominally eight hours. But if we're still in a deployment event, and we cross the eighth hour, you can't just come back. You have to wait until ERCOT releases you. We could still be in rolling blackouts."

The grid supervisor, Wattles says, is still trying to hammer out a compromise. Meanwhile, he's predicting another tight year.

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Brantley Hargrove

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