ERCOT Sends Mixed Messages About Summer Grid Capacity
But blaming renewables for failures doesn’t add up
As Austin began preheating for summer last week, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas dropped its seasonal assessment of capacity to meet summer 2023's demand – and the prognosis looks confusing. In the summer forecast, ERCOT reports sufficient capacity to meet the forecast peak load from June to September, but just two days after its forecast dropped, it announced a possible "emergency" inability to meet demand May 8-10, even though temperatures weren't expected to exceed 90 degrees.
In fact, expected summer capacity is the highest it's been since 2016, but Public Utility Commission Chair Peter Lake said last week that this summer's peak demand could exceed last summer's all-time record of around 80,000 megawatts in July. (There were no outages last year, thanks largely to consumers voluntarily conserving.) Lake and ERCOT CEO Pablo Vegas stressed that Texas' booming population growth has outpaced its supply of on-demand power, which, combined with low wind production, could overwhelm the grid. But "if you look at the actual data in the forecast," says Luke Metzger with Environment Texas, "there is a very remote chance of blackouts. It seems Chairman Lake is spinning a story to scare the public about our use of renewable energy."
Lake warns that "we will be relying on renewables to keep the lights on." ERCOT's capacity predictions specifically call wind unreliable, and the Legislature continues to target renewables in favor of bolstering natural gas. "Dispatchable generation" is a shorthand for natural gas to many in the Lege, as solar and wind depend on the weather and are consequently not immediately available in a crisis (unless stored in batteries) – indeed, Senate Bill 2015, which incentivizes dispatchable capacity, includes multiple references to "natural gas" crossed out and replaced with "dispatchable generation."
In fact, natural gas failed during the 2021 winter storm as much as renewables did, despite Gov. Greg Abbott's assertions. And as recently as Christmas, "production of gas plummeted 25% or more when it wasn't even all that cold out," which means we haven't weatherized the supply chain enough, Metzger explains. "Wind and solar don't pollute, save consumers billions of dollars, and are up to the challenge. Last summer solar played a critical role in keeping the lights on." Meanwhile, Texas surpassed California last week to become the state with the highest solar capacity in the nation.
While renewable capacity has increased (without the help of the state), SB 7 attempts to boost natural gas production through incentives. But discouraging renewable production could cause ERCOT to actually "lose energy resources short-term," Vegas told the Senate last month. Its public sector companion, SB 6, would punt an estimated $18 billion build-out of subsidized gas plants to the consumer. Meanwhile, SB 624 would create further bureaucratic barriers for new renewable projects.
Costs aside, Metzger and other advocates worry that the Legislature's focus is too much on increasing supply and not enough on conservation strategies, such as batteries charged by wind and solar, which provide a stopgap when renewables go offline. House Bill 5, a sweeping tax break bill, could've been helpful by including incentives for batteries. But an amendment specifies that benefits go to only fossil fuel-powered batteries, even though most are powered by renewables.
Overall, Metzger says continuing to invest in natural gas will only weaken the grid in the long term: "Building more gas plants means more global warming, which means more extreme weather, which means potentially more blackouts – we just get into a vicious cycle by continuing our dependence on fossil fuels."