POWER GRIDHow ERCOT Is Narrowly Getting Through an Extreme Summer — and How Experts Say It Could Do Better

By Emily Foxhall

Published 1 September 2023

Record-high power demand and faltering electricity sources have tested the grid in the past month, forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to dig deep into its toolbox to keep power flowing.

After months of unrelenting heat during a particularly sweltering summer, the Texas power grid’s ability to meet high electricity demand hit shaky ground Aug. 17.

With power production from wind turbines forecast to be low and solar production expected to drop after sunset, grid operators asked residents to conserve electricity.

It was a move that has since become routine.

Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials later told reserve power sources, including from a growing supply of batteries, to turn on. They directed companies that use large amounts of power to scale back and told transmission operators to reduce the voltage of electricity flowing through the wires, both tools that ERCOT typically saves as situations grow dire.

The power grid operator came incredibly close to triggering the kind of emergency operations that could end in rolling blackouts, ERCOT CEO and President Pablo Vegas recounted in an agency meeting Thursday.

“This summer so far has been … quite remarkable as it relates to the challenges, the number of records that we have set,” Vegas said.

Eight times in August, ERCOT has issued conservation requests as demand during August’s seething temperatures threatened to outpace the state’s ability to secure enough electricity. Plants fired by gas, coal or nuclear power — strained from fighting the same heat that electricity users were trying to escape indoors — went offline on three of those days. On two occasions, solar power threatened to dwindle earlier in the day than expected. Often, wind blew less strong than operators would have liked.

In the February 2021 winter storm, ERCOT forced sustained power outages. The deadly decision saved the grid from total collapse. But the choice left millions of Texans vulnerable to frigid weather. More than 200 people died.

“You want to stay as far away from that as possible,” said Brad Jones, who served as interim president and CEO of ERCOT in the aftermath of the emergency.

This month, electricity customers on the ERCOT grid used a whopping 85,435 megawatts — a 7% jump from the highest-demand day last year. That difference represents enough power for 1 million homes, or, as energy consultant Doug Lewin called it, “a phenomenal amount of power.”

State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said he is “almost certain” the summer will be the state’s second-hottest on record. Meanwhile, the state’s population and economy are expected to continue growing — further increasing demand for electricity.