Electric Reliability Council of Texas

Michael Plemons relaxes in his hammock at the Barton Springs Spillway Thursday afternoon. Plemons said itÂ’s a good way to beat the heat because hammocks are always attached to trees and in the shade.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Record high heat in Central Texas has Austin city officials worried about energy usage and public health, but experts predict the weather will cool off and not cause severe damage.

Temperatures in the triple digits throughout late June peaked June 24 at 109 degrees. Energy officials said Austin saw its highest recorded energy usage ever recorded for June but maintain Texas has enough energy reserves to keep the public comfortable in the heat. Troy Kimmel, UT geography lecturer and KEYE meteorologist, said cooler weather patterns can be expected in the coming months.

“At this point, I think we’re in a changing pattern even though it has started off a little on the warm side,” Kimmel said. “There’s an indication that the temperatures will trend back down, although still a little warmer than what we’d expect seasonably.”

Robbie Searcy, spokeswoman for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said last summer saw the highest energy rates ever recorded in Texas or Central Texas. ERCOT is a system operator that accounts for 85 percent of Texas’ electric load, according to the ERCOT website.

“Going into this summer, we anticipated that there would be some seriously hot days like we’re experiencing now,” Searcy said. “It was like it is now for most of the summer last year. It definitely was brutal.”

ERCOT has protocol set in place to ensure enough energy is maintained for the public to operate comfortably, Searcy said, but it is important for residents to do their part in reducing energy use to keep energy reserves stable.

“We basically try to operate with a few thousand megawatts (MW) of extra energy available in the event of an emergency,” Searcy said. “If we drop below 2,300 MW of reserves, we generate an Energy Emergency Level 1. There are steps ERCOT goes through to ensure energy remains reliable through those situations.”

An Energy Emergency Level 2 is called when energy reserves drop below 1,750 MW. At this point, certain industrial loads and other entities have volunteered to cease their energy use until reserves are stable, Searcy said.

“We had that situation a couple times last summer, and of course we increase our pleas to the public,” Searcy said. “Worst case scenario, within this context is if that didn’t work either and we’re still seeing reserves drop, there are a series of rotating outages that occur. That’s what we call an Emergency Level 3.”

Kimmel said signs of an El Niño Southern Oscillation pattern are apparent in the Pacific Ocean, which indicates residents should expect wetter conditions in the southern region of North America.

“The Pacific Ocean waters off the west coast of South America are showing signs of warming,” Kimmel said. “If that’s the case, then with time it would tend to get us a little more rain around here and more in the way of clouds.”

The Austin and Travis County Health & Human Services Department released a statement with tips for how to stay healthy and safe in the current heat, such as planning strenuous activity earlier or later in the day to avoid peak temperatures and avoiding caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.

With a heat-related fatality in Bell County reported June 24, Kimmel said it is critical for residents to constantly be in check with their health.

“Heat is kind of a silent killer,” Kimmel said. “It’s not like a tornado rolls down the street and takes you down. It’s something that can be rather benign in its onset. This is something that concerns us. I know the city of Austin has taken extra precaution with their employees.”

Kimmel said it is impossible to tell precisely how the heat will trend out for the rest of the summer, but residents should not jump to worst-case conclusions.

“Just because we started out the summer with this record high heat doesn’t mean we should assume that’s the kind of summer we’re going to have,” Kimmel said. “That’s a pretty dangerous assumption to make at his point.”

With triple digit temperatures and subsequent record-high energy use throughout the Austin area, energy officials are advising residents to take extra precautions to make it through the summer safely and comfortably.

Monday’s temperature exceeded 100 degrees and resulted in the highest energy usage ever recorded for June in Austin. The record temperature for June was broken on Tuesday with 109 degrees, which pushed energy usage to another record and even surpassed July’s energy use record, totaling 66,583 megawatts.

Robbie Searcy, spokeswoman for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the highest all-time record for energy use in Austin was Aug. 3, 2011 at 68,379 megawatts. ERCOT is a system operator that accounts for 85 percent of Texas’ electric load, according to the ERCOT website.

“Our seasonal assessment anticipated that this summer would be hotter than our 15 year average, so pretty hot, but not as brutal as last year,” Searcy said. “We’re still operating under that assessment and we expect to have adequate generation resources to get people through the summer.”

Searcy said ERCOT is encouraging users to help maintain reliable energy use throughout the summer by reducing energy use during peak hours between 3 and 7 p.m. Additionally, the mobile application ERCOT Energy Saver for Apple and Android smartphone users allows ERCOT to alert the public when energy conditions are most critical, Searcy said.

“We’re trying to be very judicious about when we send those alerts out,” Searcy said. “We appreciate everyone’s help.”

A woman walks below the powerlines on 5th Street and Lamar Monday afternoon. A recent report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas found that due to an insufficient supply of energy to meet growing demand, Texas could start experiencing rolling blackouts starting in 2012.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas issued a 10-year outlook report last week stating that Texas could face rolling blackouts starting in the summer of 2012 because of reduced energy generation and increased demand.

The report cites potentially extreme summer temperatures and power plant construction problems as factors that require rolling blackouts to maintain the reliability of the electrical grid. ERCOT spokeswoman Dottie Roark said rolling blackouts use controlled power outages to balance the energy supply. Electrical companies cut off energy to different areas in the electrical grid for 15 to 40 minutes until the supply is balanced, Roark said.

Roark said the amount of energy held on reserve should equal 13.75 percent of the total energy generated in order to handle power outages and scheduled maintenance. Given the amount of energy that is currently produced and the expected demand, ERCOT predicts the percentage of energy reserves to drop to 12 percent during the summer of 2012.

“The report is a signal to the market about future energy demands,” Roark said. “It gives them incentives to make new energy plants to meet that demand.”

Roark said ERCOT is attempting to handle the generation shortage by increasing the number of customers paid to shut off their energy use during emergency situations.

Roark said ERCOT is responsible for balancing the supply and demand of energy in Texas in order to make sure the grid’s equipment is always running at the appropriate level. If the demand for energy increases and the energy supply is not enough to handle the demand, the grid equipment can be damaged and cause an uncontrolled blackout.

Juan Ontiveros, UT’s executive director of Utilities and Energy Management, said whether or not the rolling blackouts occur depends on what the energy market does, but the shortages will not affect the UT campus.

“On the main campus, we self-generate all of the energy, including electricity, for the majority of the campus, which includes all of the research facilities,” Ontiveros said. “However, we do rely on the ERCOT grid as a backup in the event we were to experience an unexpected failure of generation.”

Ontiveros said there is little chance for UT’s energy generation facilities to face problems, and the University is committed to meeting the energy needs of the campus.

“The main campus has experienced a reliability of 99.999 percent over the last 35 years,” Ontiveros said. “Over the last 10 years, we have made significant investments in the campus utility systems so that current and future campus energy needs are met reliably and cost-effectively.”

Austin Energy spokesperson Carlos Cordova said all energy companies in Texas have to participate in the rolling blackout even if they have enough energy to meet their demands.

“The voltage has to balance out. Otherwise, it creates even worse outages,” Cordova said. “Rolling blackouts are necessary to prevent a total blackout.”

Cordova said Austin Energy has increased the number of circuits in their system over the past year and will be able to spread outages more evenly throughout the city in the event of a rolling blackout.

Cordova said it is important for people to conserve energy to prevent potential shortages during the winter and summer seasons when energy use reaches its peak.

“Everyone will have to continue to conserve until more generation is brought online,” Cordova said. “Especially if temperatures are as high as last summer and the drought continues.”

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: UT not to be affected electrical blackouts 

AUSTIN — The manager of the state’s power grid is again urging Texans to conserve electricity as extreme heat pushes demand near record levels.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas initiated a “Level 2” emergency Wednesday, asking large-scale customers to shut down parts of operations as reserves fell below 1,750 megawatts.

Kent Saathoff, ERCOT’s vice president of system planning and operations, said the risk of rotating outages was low, but the agency urged customers to conserve from 3 to 7 p.m. each day through the weekend.

ERCOT issued similar warnings in early August, when record demand of 68,294 megawatts was set Aug. 3. The agency said demand Wednesday was expected to surpass 67,000 megawatts.

Austin broke an 86-year-old record Wednesday with its 70th day of triple-digit temperatures this year.

Record levels of electricity use in Texas last week led to concerns about possible statewide rolling blackouts, but such an event would not affect UT because the campus runs its own power grid.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which supplies about 85 percent of the state’s electricity, required several large industrial customers to shut down Thursday when the state set a new demand record at 68,294 megawatts during peak hours Wednesday. The company canceled a power watch Friday in response to reduced demand.

Dottie Roark, a spokeswoman for the council, said high demand could continue if record temperatures persist. The council instituted blackouts in February after extreme cold temperatures led to increased energy use. In high temperatures, people run more air conditioning, which she said strains power generation units.

“The drought is causing some units to have issues with the temperature of the coolant they use for their generation units, which means they may have to run at lower capacity,” Roark said in an email.

Rolling blackouts temporarily shut off power to prevent uncontrolled shutdowns, Roark said.

“Those massive blackouts are very hard to recover from and can take days or weeks to restore the units,” she said.

Juan Ontiveros, UT’s Utilities and Energy Management executive director, said lack of wind, which helps supply the council’s power, has contributed to the company’s difficulties during the heat wave.

“Part of their capacity comes from wind,” Ontiveros said. “One of the problems with high temperatures is that in high temperatures you don’t get wind.”

Ontiveros said the UT power plant provides most buildings on the main campus with electricity, but does not power the Pickle Research Campus. Neither the main campus nor the Pickle Research Campus experienced significant problems when the council last required blackouts Feb. 2.

The UT power grid has not had large increases in demand for this time of year like the city and state, Ontiveros said. If it became necessary to reduce power, the University would turn off the cooling system while chillers would maintain the temperature. A 4-million-gallon cold water storage tank next to the San Jacinto Garage could supply cooling for up to four hours. The University could also use the statewide grid, if necessary.

“We produce all of the power that we need, but we’re connected to [the council],” Ontiveros said.

Austin Energy reached a record in peak electricity usage at 2,685 megawatts Tuesday, said Leslie Sopko, Austin Energy spokeswoman. If asked to shed usage by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the utility would institute blackouts for 10 minutes at a time through 71 of its circuits, while 318 circuits would remain, maintaining emergency services and hospitals.

“We don’t cut off those circuits because those are critical services that we need to keep the lights on,” Sopko said.

Printed on Monday, August 8th, 2011 as: Statewide blackouts feared possible after record electricity use

SAN ANTONIO  — The electric grid operator for Texas says there is a "high probability" of rotating residential outages as power demand statewide struggles to keep pace with record triple-digit highs.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Thursday escalated the warning quickly as power demand surged. Large industrial customers were already being paid to temporarily drop off the grid to conserve power for the rest of the state.

ERCOT spokeswoman Dottie Roark says Texas hasn't seen rolling summer outages since 2006.

ERCOT said rolling residential outages typically last 15 to 45 minutes. It's up to each electric provider to decide how the outages will be implemented.

Roark says the potential for outages was exacerbated Thursday by more generators being out of service.

John Andrews, owner of Texas Ceiling Fans, looks through a magazine in his business. According to Texas Ceiling Fans manager Mike Sconce, there was a particularly high boost in fan sales this summer as compared to seasons past as rising temperatures in early May led people to seek relief. With the onslaught of record-high temperatures, Austin Energy had the highest peak demand ever recorded.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Record-high temperatures this summer have paved the way for record-high power usage in Austin with a new electricity demand record of 66,867 megawatts between 4 and 5 p.m. on Monday.

This peak demand record surpasses the former all-time record from last year, which was 65,776 megawatts, on Aug. 23. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s bulk transmission grid, expects another record to be broken this week.

To some, the new peak demand record was not shocking. Michael Webber, associate director of UT’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy as well as head of the Webber Energy Group, said that while this phenomenon was highly predictable, it was simultaneously impressive how the nearly 25 million in Texas people use this much power.

“If you think of how many watts a light bulb needs, [in terms of the necessary power to generate a grid] like 40-100 watts, big appliances need kilowatts,” he said. “If you have billions of watts to be generated and consumed, it means a lot of appliances are using lots of power.”

On Monday morning, the council wasn’t expecting the electricity demand to get so high, but demand increased quickly throughout the day, said Dottie Roark, head of media relations for the council.

“By the end of the afternoon, we knew we were going to be breaking a record,” she said.

The council has suggested methods that citizens may use to reduce electricity use for the rest of the week, especially during “peak hours” from 3 to 7 p.m. They emphasize turning off unnecessary lights and electrical appliances.

The council pays attention to what plans are available and try to hold the total demand 10 to 20 percent below the maximum power that’s available. If something catastrophic happens in the middle of the afternoon, there’s a little flexibility and margin in the system, said Robert E. Hebner, director and research professor at the Center for Electromechanics at UT.

Another conservation tip is setting air conditioners at 78 degrees or higher, and raising them to 85 degrees when individuals are away from home.

Air conditioning alone accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the average Central Texas home’s summertime power bill, and much of that cost is in electricity that is wasted, according to the Austin Energy website.

The average number of triple-digit-temperature days in Austin is 12, said Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova. In 1925, Austin saw 69 triple-digit days. Temperatures rose above 100 on 68 days in 2009. Cordova said the city is on the way to breaking those records this year. Aug. 2 was the 49th day of 2011 in which Austin temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.

“Out of the 365 days in the year there might be over 70 days where the temperatures are over 100 degrees. We need rain to break this heat-spell we’re in,” Cordova said. “All the utilities, including [the council] and Austin Energy predict the peaks for the year, but sometimes you can’t predict anomalies.”

The Webber Energy Group is currently working on alternative methods of generating energy. One project involves large-scale storage using compressed air. The air is compressed into large underground geological caverns at night, acting as a high pressure tank. During the day the air rushes out of the cavern, spinning turbines in the process that generate power.

The city of Austin also activated Phase 1 of its heat emergency plan, which requires monitoring at-risk individuals — including the elderly, babies and tourists — for signs of heat-related illness.