So. ERCOT begs you to conserve energy — and as a good Texan not wanting to contribute to the catastrophic collapse of the power grid during a triple-digit heat wave, you comply.
But if you’re among the folks conserving energy when it’s sunny and hot, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re waiting until you get home to run the dishwasher and dry a load of laundry, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re sweatin’ to the oldies all day and then cranking the AC as soon as the sun goes down, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s not your fault, though, because Texas officials do a really bad job of explaining that the time when the grid is most strained on super-hot days, and most in need of your conservation efforts, is at dusk when the sun is setting — not high noon.
That might seem counterintuitive, but not once you realize the massive amounts of solar power that Texas has added to the grid in recent years. (It’s not something that Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders like to advertise in this oil and gas state, but they should.)
When it’s sunniest, we’ve had plenty of power — power that’s also cheap — with nearly 20 percent of the electricity on the Texas grid coming from solar. That’s a big win for consumers, and the environment. As the sun sets on the hottest and most stagnant days, the situation can get dire, as it has recently.
So, in practice that means it’s better to run your dryer at 3 p.m. — not at 6 p.m.
Paradoxically, when the brutal fireball in the sky starts melting into that majestic smoggy-marmalade-and-purple-haze Houston sunset we all love, that’s the time to fret.
ERCOT, the manager of the Texas electric grid, sent out conservation notices recently begging us all to lower usage between 5-9 p.m. Wholesale electricity prices spiked. Utility companies braced for blackouts. Thankfully, they didn’t happen — at least, not yet.
Abbott’s office has taken credit for signing laws after Winter Storm Uri that strengthened the grid, when in reality, much more should have been done. Are Abbott and lawmakers just getting lucky? By forcing aging power plants to remain online as reserves, his appointed managers have both kept the lights on and risked disaster. It’s like taking an old car on a road trip through the desert without replacing the worn-out tires.
In truth, we don’t yet know all the specifics behind these close calls. On any given day, extreme heat can cause natural gas and coal plants to malfunction, knocking off what are meant to be ready-to-go, or “dispatchable,” sources of energy that can be cranked up in times of need. Bloomberg reported that a transmission line failure on Wednesday, Sept. 6, kept wind energy from reaching Dallas during the critical dawn hours.
What we do know is that these September evening conditions were anticipated. Dan Cohan, an engineering expert at Rice University, warned this editorial board after Winter Storm Uri to keep our eyes on late summer afternoons. A consultant hired by the Public Utility Commission projected 30 hours of energy shortfalls per year, on average, primarily during these cruel summer dusks. In March, when U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm swung through Houston for the CERAWeek conference, she told us making sure the U.S. has enough dispatchable power keeps her up at night.
To their credit, state leaders haven’t had their heads in the sand and have proposed ways to add energy generation that could be flipped on when the sun sets and winds aren’t blowing. But their plans would have cost consumers dearly. Peter Lake, the former head of the PUC who resigned in June, proposed a complex scheme that would cost up to $460 million annually to reward generators that deliver during such crunches. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made his own $8 billion proposal to subsidize the construction of new, back-up natural gas plants over the next decade. Fortunately, neither plan passed.
Why should we as taxpayers and consumers have to pay out the nose to solve a 30-hour problem when there are smarter and cheaper solutions? Innovations in geothermal could bring costs down. Utility-scale battery storage and demand response systems could be expanded quickly.
And that brings us back to your air conditioner, dryer and dishwasher. You may have heeded ERCOT’s pleading but many don’t. As we recently wrote, their jargon-laden begging just isn’t enough. Instead, make conservation automatic and make it pay. Some companies already give customers incentives, rebates or lower rates if they install smart thermostats that get adjusted up during peak demand.
Electric vehicle owners should play this game, too. For starters, manually unplug your EV when the grid is tight. Or, set it up like a smart thermostat. Some retail energy providers will automatically turn car chargers on and off depending on when cheap, renewable energy is surging. But that’s only step one. EVs can be pooled together to feed energy back into the grid. They can store up electrons and release them when demand nearly outstrips supply. Pool enough cars together and it’s a virtual power plant.
Don’t think this is feasible? Last year, Elon Musk tested this with 64 Texas homeowners who have Tesla powerwalls, which are wall-mounted battery packs connected to solar panels. The company did it without asking for the state’s permission. On Aug. 24, though, ERCOT gave Tesla official approval for two pilot programs.
We can hear the defenders of the fossil fuel status quo chuckling: You can’t have affordable, reliable and clean energy at the same time; you have to make a choice and no one’s really willing to give up on reliability; and, finally, all these close calls just show Joe Biden’s energy transition is foolish, expensive and destined to fail. The naysayers are wrong, but so is anyone who says it’ll be easy.
The irony of it all is that Texas is blazing ahead and has surpassed California in total renewable energy generation. For all the pro-oil-and-gas bluster of our current statewide leaders, the testing grounds for a global energy transition include our own kitchens, laundry rooms and garages.
It’s a high-stakes battle, not just to protect the Texas electric grid but also our planet and her fragile ecosystems buckling under the forces of climate change. Every Texan has a role. Just remember: high noon in this duel between conservation and collapse isn’t typically at noon. It’s dusk.