Once more Texans under electrical grid alert due to low wind and high temperatures, except this time things got dicey. Real dicey

(Editor’s note: this story was updated several times Wednesday night as more information became available)

Despite being one of the most energy-rich jurisdictions on the planet, Texas once again went under an electrical grid alert on Wednesday, Sept. 6, warning its residents to reduce power consumption lest the lights go out. Then it got a lot worse around 7:25 p.m. local time, as one of the most crucial factors in grid operation was heading towards crisis stage.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), tweeted at 3:55 p.m. on Sept 7, “TXANS Update—September 6, 2023: ERCOT has issued a Conservation Appeal for today, Sept. 6, from 6 – 9 p.m. CT. Operating reserves are expected to be low this evening due to high demand, low wind, and declining solar power generation into the evening hours. We request Texas businesses and residents conserve electricity use, if safe to do so. For more information, energy-saving tips, and to sign up for #TXANS emails, visit: bit.ly/3r0eqa1. You can monitor grid conditions on ercot.com and the app.”

At supper time, it was 32 C in Houston.

What ECROT calls a “conservation appeal” is indistinguishable from what the Alberta Electric System Operator refers to as a “grid alert;” a public notice telling its customer base that unless measures are taken to reduce power consumption, the next step could be rolling blackouts. Alberta has had several similar alerts in recent weeks.

According to ERCOT’s website and their supply and demand forecast graphic, the difference between the available electrical capacity and demand forecast was expected to come within approximately 1,400 megawatts during the 6 p.m. hour, on a demand of around 80,000 megawatts. That’s less than 2 per cent, when contingency reserves are usually supposed to be around 4 per cent. Actual reserves, as opposed to forecasts, ended up falling to 2,113 megawatts at 7:39 p.m. local time.

At 1 a.m. that day, wind was producing 16,177 megawatts, but by 2 p.m. it had fallen to 2,124 megawatts. While solar production was still high during the day, that wasn’t much of an issue, but as the sun was to set, nearly 13,000 megawatts was going to disappear from the grid in short order, as it does every night. The shortfall was when the sun set, but wind was insufficient, as was apparently everything else in the grid to make up enough operating reserves.

Frequency at risk

Then at 7:25 p.m. local time, the frequency on the grid dropped to 59.77 hertz. It is absolutely crucial that the grid frequency stay within a very narrow band around 60 hertz. If the grid frequency falls substantially outside of those parameters of ±0.5%, from 59.7 hertz to 60.3 hertz for a 60 hertz grid, then whole generators and plants start tripping off, leading to cascading failures and blackouts.

That’s precisely what happened on Feb. 15, 2021, when the historic blackout hit Texas for several days, leading to hundreds of deaths. At that time, ERCOT’s frequency fell below 59.4 hertz for four minutes, 27 seconds. If it had remained below that level for an additional four minutes and 37 seconds, most of the grid would have gone down.

Red alert (no joke)

This is how ERCOT describes its levels of alert.

The Grid Conditions meter displays the current state of ERCOT grid conditions.

Green = The grid is operating under normal conditions.

Yellow = Energy conservation is requested.

Orange (Energy Emergency Level 1) = Emergency operations have begun due to low power reserves, but there are no controlled outages at this time. Energy conservation is requested.

Red (Energy Emergency Level 2) = The emergency level has been raised due to continued low power reserves. Energy conservation is requested. It is advised to create a plan in case controlled outages are needed later. Those with critical medical needs should register with their local utility and have a backup plan.

Black (Energy Emergency Level 3) = The highest level of emergency operations. Local electric utilities have been instructed to begin controlled outages. Health and safety should be made a priority by using city or county instructions and resources. Energy conservation is critical.

At 7:31 p.m. local time on Sept. 6, ERCOT issued an Red Energy Emergency Level 2 alert, the highest level before blackouts.

Texas’ situation was exacerbated by being its own standalone grid, separate from Eastern and Western Interconnects. While there are interconnects, they are limited. Essentially, Texas all but stands alone.

Pipeline Online had previously reported that ERCOT had issued eight such grid alerts over the course of two weeks. This makes the ninth in three weeks. According to the grid operator’s X account, similar grid alerts occurred on Aug. 17, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29 and 30.

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At 8:40 p.m. local time, ERCOT tweeted, “ERCOT has moved out of emergency operations. The Conservation Appeal remains in effect until 9:00 p.m. CT. Visit ERCOT.com for more info.” At 9 p.m., the conservation appeal was lifted. 

ERCOT later tweeted, “ERCOT entered emergency operations tonight due to a drop in both operating reserves and frequency. By entering EEA 2, ERCOT was able to utilize additional reserve resources to protect the reliability of the grid. No power outages associated with the ERCOT power grid were necessary. The Weather Watch remains in effect through Sept. 8 due to continued higher temperatures, high demand, and the potential for lower reserves. Thank you to Texas residents and businesses for your conservation efforts.”

Don’t mess with Texas

Texans are not particularly happy about the situation, if the tweets in response are any indication. Here are some representative examples:

So how is all of this applicable to Saskatchewan? Texas and Alberta have both been far and away leaders in the adoption of wind and solar into their power grid, and both in recent weeks have been issuing grid alerts when the temperatures were hot and wind power production was low, especially when the sun goes down and solar power generation heads towards flatline. SaskPower has started its way down a similar path. While it currently only had 617 megawatts of grid-scale wind and 30 megawatts of grid-scale solar generation, its stated intention is to add 3,000 megawatts of additional wind and solar by 2035.

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