This commentary originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog.
As we begin a new year, the outlook for 2014 looks bright. But as the Polar Vortex has descended upon the U.S. over the last few days, we have been reminded of the past, specifically the winter of 2011 when Texas’ electricity grid stuttered under the extreme cold.
Monday, as a record-breaking cold snap whisked over the U.S., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, warned of possible blackouts, just as they did in 2011. We were lucky this time, but in February of 2011 we were not, and blackouts occurred throughout the state.
ERCOT’s warning meant that the grid's power reserves “dropped below a comfortable threshold,” and the "system was just one step away from rolling blackouts” as the need for energy outpaced supply. As these blackout threats loomed, two power plants succumbed to the cold and went down. The loss in capacity amounted to about 3700 megawatts (MW), with 1800 MW lost due to the cold. According to Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s Director of System Operations, “if we had lost another unit it would have put us into an Energy Emergency Alert Three” – the stage that prompts rolling blackouts. This is unnecessary and unacceptable. Read More
If you have been following our Texas Energy Crunch campaign over the last year, you know that demand response (DR) can play a pivotal role in meeting Texas’ energy needs without relying on dirty, inefficient fossil fuels that pollute our air and consume much-needed water. Simply put, demand response rewards those who reduce electricity use during peak (high energy demand) times, resulting in more money in peoples’ pockets, a more stable and reliable electric grid and less harmful pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
That said, fully harnessing DR in Texas homes has been a bit of a challenge, despite the high electricity prices that result from the scorching summer temperatures. To understand the issue, it’s important to look at the obstacles emerging technologies often face. I highlight some of these obstacles in a recent EDF Voices blog and will be diving deeper in future posts. Namely, the infrastructure to fully enable residential DR adoption isn’t in place, yet.
As we’ve highlighted in previous posts, water and energy regulators often make decisions in silos, despite the inherent connection between these two sectors. Texas is no exception.
Two very important and intertwined events are happening in Texas right now.
First, the state is in the midst of an energy crunch brought on by a dysfunctional electricity market, drought, population growth and extreme summer temperatures. An energy crunch signifies that the available supply of power barely exceeds the projected need (or demand) for electricity. Texas’ insufficient power supply makes the whole electricity system vulnerable to extreme weather events. An especially hot day (with thousands of air conditioning units running at full blast) could push the state over the edge and force the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the institution charged with ensuring grid reliability, to issue rolling blackouts.
Second, Texas is still in the midst of a severe, multi-year drought, forcing state agencies to impose strict water restrictions throughout the state. The drought has already had a devastating impact on surface water and many communities are facing critical water shortages.
Although Texas has always had to deal with extreme weather events, we can anticipate even more intense weather as climate change advances. The new climate ‘normal’ makes extreme heat waves, like the historic 2011 Texas summer, 20 times more likely to occur. These extreme weather events heighten the urgency of the energy-water nexus. Read More
Posted in Climate, Demand Response, Energy Efficiency, Energy-Water Nexus, Renewable Energy, Texas, Utility Business Models Also tagged Demand Response, energy, Energy Efficiency, Energy-Water Nexus, Water
We’ve discussed the potentially grave impacts of the Texas Energy Crunch in a number of our previous blog posts. Time and time again, we repeat that the cheapest, cleanest and most reliable energy resource is the energy we save through energy efficiency. But our energy efficiency programs in Texas are still modest compared to other states. Beyond politics, there is another key issue limiting our state’s energy savings: Texas does not treat energy efficiency as a ‘resource.’
Traditionally, energy efficiency is left ‘invisible’ to utilities and grid planners—so they lose count of its many benefits. Treating energy efficiency as a resource, instead, puts it on a level playing field with other energy resources, such as power plants. This allows utilities to realize the unique benefits energy efficiency has over other energy sources.
Energy efficiency can reduce harmful greenhouse gases, save people money and create jobs – and it is extremely competitive with other energy resources. When the energy saved through efficiency is weighed against new energy resources, efficiency upgrades to buildings and homes generally weigh in at just one-third of the cost of building a new fossil-fuel power plant. On top of that, energy efficiency upgrades can eliminate the need to install or replace other expensive electric grid equipment. This cost-savings is one of the many benefits generally overlooked by utilities and electric grid planners.
Part of what prevents electric grid planners from counting efficiency as a resource in Texas is the way that the energy market is structured. When Texas deregulated its energy market in 1999, the aim was to increase options for customers and lower prices. Efficiency programs were not included in the new market structure. Instead, they were left for transmission and distribution utilities (TDUs), the “wires” companies that deliver electricity from power plants to customers, to manage. With efficiency left out of the restructured energy market, the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) and other state leaders tend to view efficiency programs as subsidies that exist outside of the market. Read More