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ERCOT says energy issues may continue across Texas power grid

Friday, February 4, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Texans’ run-in with the rolling blackout may not yet be over, as officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said that as of Thursday they are still short of all the energy needed to meet the state’s power needs during the current subfreezing weather. Thursday night, both snow and freezing rain were converging on parts of Central Texas, making the electricity forecast more difficult.


“The message is still that we need to conserve. We need to conserve until the temperatures moderate,” ERCOT President and CEO Trip Doggett said Thursday. “And I will stress particularly in South Texas, where it is much colder than normal … and we have generating unit outages that still concern us.”


That news came as officials with the statewide energy agency met with reporters to discuss the loss of 7,000 megawatts (MW) that struck Texas Wednesday. Doggett suggested that a series of equipment failures caused the outage.


“In most cases what we observed was the extremely cold ambient temperatures along with the windy conditions combined to cause problems with control systems, primarily, that are used such as plant transmitters and transducers or valves which compromised the larger power plant operational capability,” he said.


Doggett noted that many of these were back up by Thursday morning.  However, as of Thursday afternoon, ERCOT was reporting that it was still short about 3,000 MW of power. It is the organization’s practice to take steps to curb energy use when its reserves fall below 2,300 MW. It expects a seasonal peak to hit sometime Friday, when predictions suggest that statewide demand will exceed 56,800 MW.


Doggett attributed Wednesday’s problems to generation units that failed or were unavailable. “The load forecast was there, the plan for that generation to be available was there … It was outages – outages of transmission lines or generation units that create the situation that we had yesterday,” he said.


He added that his group may take regulatory action based on yesterday’s events. “It’s really the responsibility of the owners to keep (their) plants in shape and available,” he said. “I will say that we will be looking at whether tighter restrictions should be applied on those plants.”


Those, he said, could come from Texas’ Public Utilities Commission or ERCOT.


Wednesday’s shortage left Austinites and many others in Central Texas stuck in a pattern of rolling blackouts that extended into the mid-afternoon. Doggett noted that he would like for the Reliability Council “to communicate to the transmission companies the status of our online generation and our load forecast more frequently then we did during the event so … that they would have some comfort in what the level of risk would be.”


Doggett said timely information is the key. “We certainly will be attempting to communicate better with our transmission providers, including folks like Austin Energy so that we can keep them informed of situations, for instance, during the day,” he said.


At one point, energy that typically costs $100 per megawatt hour reached a price as high as $3,000 per megawatt hour. Doggett said that those expenses would be borne by competitive retail providers in such cities as Houston and Dallas.


Austin Energy spokesperson Ed Clark told In Fact Daily that the utility “sold a little and we bought a little.”


Because of the complicated process—which Clark says was even more difficult because of Wednesday’s events—that ERCOT uses to calculate the amount that each utility owes or makes, no net figures were available.


Clark said that $3,000 per megawatt hour is a limit set by the Public Utility Commission as the top price that an electricity generator can charge. There are some exceptions to that rule.


Prices held at the $3,000 level for what Clark termed “a couple of hours” on Wednesday.

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