Why does ERCOT issue so many requests for Texas to conserve energy?
The Arctic blast that hit Texas this week did not bring widespread power outages, but it did reignite long-standing frustration over the condition of the Texas power grid. One point of exasperation stood out: Texans were asked, once again, to conserve electricity.
It’s one of the things people contacted KUT about the most this week.
“Why does ERCOT keep saying they have enough supply and then continuously ask people to conserve power?” Lisa Kettyle asked during a recent Instagram Q&A hosted by KUT. “Why, year after year, are we expected to shoulder that load when the answer is clearly to repair and improve the power grid?”
Even the head of ERCOT, Pablo Vegas, recognized that people were getting fed up in a virtual discussion hosted by the United States Energy Association in December.
At that event, Vegas said the 11 conservation alerts ERCOT issued in 2023 got people to conserve power, “but we also got some pretty significant feedback that people were getting pretty weary of those calls.”
About a month later, ERCOT issued the two most recent requests.
Why does ERCOT issue conservation requests?
ERCOT issues voluntary calls for conservation when the amount of energy reserves on the Texas power grid shrinks to a level that the grid operator finds uncomfortably small.
By asking people to reduce energy use voluntarily, the grid operator hopes to avoid issuing “Energy Emergency” declarations that require more drastic interventions in grid operations and the energy market to balance supply and demand on the grid.
Those interventions can be costly. They include paying big energy consumers like factories and cryptocurrency miners large amounts of money to shut down their operations, freeing up more power for the rest of the grid.
Since the 2021 winter blackout, reports suggest that the grid operator and the Public Utility Commission of Texas are also under political pressure to avoid declaring an energy emergency.
The conditions that require ERCOT to declare energy emergency alerts are clearly defined and largely mandated by federal policy. When energy reserves drop to X number of megawatts on the grid for X amount of time, the grid operator is required to declare an emergency.
It appears the conditions that lead to the issuing calls for voluntary conservation are more based on vibes than data.
When KUT asked if there were “triggers” to determine when conservation requests are issued like there are for energy emergency alerts, ERCOT media representatives did not directly answer the question. Instead, they forwarded a link to frequently asked questions that do not address the specific rules around conservation requests.
Regardless, the Texas grid operator seems to be issuing these alerts more frequently as part of its response to the 2021 blackout and because the number of extreme weather events in Texas has increased in recent years.
"[ERCOT] has become a little more cautious over the years in issuing more notices when it sees severe weather coming or when it sees that something might happen,” Daniel Cohan, a civil engineering professor at Rice University, said.
Experts say the number of conservation calls in Texas is 'not normal'
If you looked at this week on its own, it may not be surprising that the Texas grid went into a conservation alert.
We had record-breaking cold temperatures on certain days in some parts of the state, and winter energy use reached record-breaking highs.
In that context, ERCOT asking for people to conserve power makes sense, Cohan said.
“It is to be expected that, when we get a storm that is typically the coldest that we might expect it to be every two or three years, that should push conditions to be a little bit tight,” he told KUT.
But, this week’s pleas for conservation came with plenty of baggage.
Over the summer and fall of 2023, ERCOT asked Texans to conserve energy 11 times. It also sent one energy emergency alert in September.
“Thirteen conservation calls in the space of eight months is not normal,” said Doug Lewin, an energy consultant and author of The Texas Energy and Power Newsletter. “That is way too many.”
ERCOT appears to call for conservation more than other regional grids
Comparing the number of conservation requests received by ERCOT consumers, versus consumers on other power grids can be difficult because different regional grid operators call conservation requests different names.
Groups that manage the different regional grids also use different standards for when to ask for conservation and ask for it for different durations of time.
A perusal of press releases from the PJM Interconnection which manages the grid covering parts of the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, shows only one public request for conservation in the last three years, during Winter Storm Elliot in 2022.
Likewise, the MidContinent Independent System Operator, which manages power over a swath of the U.S. grid from Wisconsin to Louisiana, appears to have issued only a couple of general conservation requests over the last several years, one of them during Winter Storm Uri in 2021.
California’s grid managing group, CAISO, has a closer number of conservation requests to Texas. While consumers in California received no such requests last year, they received 11 “flex alerts” for conservation in 2022, a year of extreme drought and heat in that state.
But California, like Texas, is a state with a reputation for having a troubled power grid. Some point to the two states’ shared history with energy deregulation as a factor.
That deregulation led Texas to create what is known as an “energy-only” power market, that offered fewer incentives for power plants to stand in reserve.
Advocates say that created a more efficient and inexpensive system. Critics point out that it reduced the reserve amount of electricity available for times of high energy demand.
Do conservation requests even work?
Considering how often Texans receive conservation requests, it may surprise you to learn that the effectiveness of such requests is open for debate.
“The amount of demand reduced on the grid during a call for conservation can vary,” ERCOT wrote in response to a question about how much power it saved from this week’s conservation alerts. “In past years’ conservation requests, we have seen approx. 500-1,000 [megawatts] of reduced demand.”
The grid operator did not respond to questions about how it arrived at those numbers.
“There appears to be no way to tell whether the calls for energy conservation are working,” said Alison Silverstein, an energy consultant and former official with the Texas Public Utility Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“There’s likely a cadre of grid insiders and Girl Scouts like me who actually do turn down our thermostats and unplug a bunch of appliances for the duration,” she said. “But that’s probably a very small group.”
Some research has shown that conservation requests lose effectiveness the more they are employed.
ERCOT CEO Vegas suggested as much in his December appearance with the United States Energy Association.
“When you do [conservation requests] over and over, people start to tune out to it because it becomes too commonplace,” Vegas said.
Paying consumers could be a better way to convince them to conserve
It sometimes seems that Texans’ frustration with conservation calls is not that they are asked to reduce power use, but that they are asked to do it for free.
That’s because, in Texas, big commercial power consumers operate under a different system of rules when it comes to conservation. Industrial facilities, bitcoin mines, and other big consumers can get paid to conserve power under “demand response” programs.
Companies that sign onto these programs are compensated for the disruption of conservation in a way that residential consumers are not — a fact not lost on everyday Texans.
“There's another name for voluntary conservation calls, it's uncompensated demand response,” Lewin said. “That's not only unfair and inequitable, it also makes these conservation calls less effective.”
Michael Webber, a mechanical engineering professor at UT Austin, said the technology is already available to enact such programs. Some Texas utilities, like Austin Energy, have programs in place that give rebates to people with smart meters who agree to allow their energy use to be turned down during periods of high demand.
“I talk to ERCOT and I talk to utilities and say ‘just come up with a scheme where you pay people a couple bucks to dial back their load, they’ll do it,’” Webber said. “That’s a lot cheaper than building new power plants and it’s a lot faster too.”
Finally, analysts say there’s another way to get people to use less energy without any of the inconvenience of energy conservation requests: increased energy efficiency standards.
“Texas is a laggard on energy efficiency,” Webber said. “If it's really cold or really hot and you have a more efficient home, it doesn't drive peak [energy] demand to these crazy highs.”
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