Darryl Ford is a master electrician who’s been selling generators for 16 years. The models he installs range from 10,000-watt generators that can run a few large appliances up to 150,000-watt systems that could power a large ranch estate.
Business used to be “slow-moving,” Ford said. That started to changed in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic reached Texas and people began panic buying. Then came February 2021, and the winter storm disaster that some call “Snowvid,” when 4.5 million households lost power, many for multiple days in temperatures that barely hovered above zero degrees.
Now Ford, who owns San Antonio-based Solarator Electric, cannot keep up with demand. Customers are waiting 25 weeks at this point, and the orders just keep coming. This run on generators is just one symptom of the grid anxiety that has caused many Texans to embark on a personal quest for energy independence.
Despite assurances from state leaders that recently passed legislation will be sufficient to protect residents from another deadly blackout, many Texans no longer believe that something they took for granted will be there when they need it most. Officials are increasingly emphasizing the need to conserve power during extreme temperatures, but it’s unclear whether the message is getting through.
After more 40 years in his field, Ford understands why his customers distrust the power grid and the government agencies that oversee it. “This grid is unreliable, I’m telling you right now,” he said in a Wednesday phone call. “We all know it. And the people that are in charge are not necessarily the most honest people, either.”
When ERCOT issued a call for conservation in June, Ford says he saw another big spike in customer demand. Stephen Fisher, chief technician for San Antonio generator company Native Power Systems, said the company has also been seeing business boom.
“I think everyone is tired because the system is strained and it feels like we are on the edge of complete system failure far too often,” said Michael Webber, chief science and technology officer for French electric utility Engie SA and a University of Texas mechanical engineering professor.
Janie Gonzalez, who owns a San Antonio IT business and serves as a trustee for San Antonio’s CPS Energy, put it this way at a recent meeting: “I don’t think people trust us to do the good things that I know that we’re capable of, that we’ve done in the past.”
Helotes resident Keith Muhlestein was among those who bought a generator after losing the power in February’s storm. He described the purchase as “too little, too late.”
At the time Muhlestein lost power, his 84-year-old mother had been living with his family at their home, relying on an oxygen machine to breathe. The outage lasted longer than her bottled oxygen supply.
“She slipped into a stupor and died a couple weeks later,” Muhlestein said. “The impact of the storm and power outage will be with my family forever.”
Calls for conservation
Earlier this month, Texans had another bout with grid anxiety when ERCOT issued a warning about “tight conditions.” An unusually large number of fossil fuel power plants had broken down, a development one ERCOT official called “very concerning.” Wind and solar generation helped but didn’t fill the gap left by the absent plants.
Power grid memes began popping up on social media as Texans mocked a grid they concluded was ready for neither winter nor summer. One meme featured a man aiming his shotgun into the sun with the text “Texans using their new freedoms to stay cool while the power grid fails.”
The ERCOT warning didn’t result in any disruptions. Tight periods happen nearly every summer and are “not highly unusual” during Texas’ sweltering summers, said Caitlin Smith, a vice president of AB Power Advisors who specializes in ERCOT policy.
In a sense, a narrow gap between supply and demand is a feature of the Texas system, not a bug, Smith said. “Scarcity pricing” is built into the state’s energy market as a way to create incentives for power companies to build new generators, Smith explained.
“We use a market to get energy, and so we depend on that price to pay the generators to operate,” Smith said.
If Texas does have a summertime power failure, it would be a first for the ERCOT system. The ERCOT grid has seen rolling blackouts four times in its history – once in December 1989, once in April 2006, and in February of 2011 and 2021.
But calls for conservation might be louder and more insistent this summer than in previous years. There seems to be an increasing embrace of the term among the Texas power industry.
“It’s not unlike the many conservation calls we hear in Texas each summer for conserving water,” said Public Utility Commission Chairman Peter Lake in a June 17 meeting. “We ask people not to water their lawn every day, and when you do water your lawn, please do it at night.”
CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams made similar comments in a board meeting last week.
“I don’t think we’ll be in a case where, unfortunately, the community doesn’t have to kind of think about conservation,” Gold-Williams said. “I think it has to be a critical piece that will help some of those situations that we have during the summer when we have pressure on capacity and renewables, for whatever reason, aren’t producing.”
Many experts say conservation is a better way to avoid blackouts than building expensive, polluting new power plants.
“Conservation is the cheapest and most robust solution, so it’s surprising it has taken this long for it to be embraced,” Webber said. “Now we just need to reward people who reduce or shift their consumption to help support the grid.”
Legislative action might fall short
Bill Hurley wants to believe in a future with a stable climate and clean, reliable power grids. But after three nights in February sleeping on the floor next to his natural gas fireplace, stockpiling a generator and fossil fuels at his home felt like the right move.
A retired computer programmer, Hurley volunteers with the local chapter of the nonprofit Citizen’s Climate Lobby. A protest sign with the group’s logo leans against the wall in his front room. On his countertop sit the foam wind turbines CPS Energy used to give away as promotional swag.
In Hurley’s garage, next to a Toyota Prius (his third) with a Jay Inslee bumper sticker, sits the black and orange box that will provide backup power in case of an outage. Fueled by propane and gasoline, his generator can crank out up to 3,100 watts, enough to power a roomful of essentials through a short disaster.
“I work for getting the government to do its job, but I’m not optimistic that they are,” Hurley said.
After the winter storm, Texas officials made tweaks meant to avoid a repeat of the cold-weather disaster in the form of Senate Bills 2 and 3. Whether those fixes are enough depends on who you ask.
For Republican leaders, the answer is a resounding yes, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott saying that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
Senate Bill 2 overhauled ERCOT’s governance structure while Senate Bill 3 directed the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT to develop rules to ensure power generators and transmission lines can operate in extreme heat and cold, among many other tweaks. The legislation included many of the same rules for natural gas system operators, though it carves out a wide exemption for any natural gas systems that regulators don’t ultimately deem “critical.”
Smith, the ERCOT policy analyst, thinks those are “good bills to start with.”
“You don’t want things written into law that are so prescriptive that you can only change them by law,” Smith said. “You kind of want everything addressed, but not necessarily solved.”
Webber called the bills “a step in the right direction” but said they “did not do nearly enough.”
“It requires winterization of the power system, but not the gas system,” Webber said. “Since the failure of the gas system was a root cause of our problems in February, this is a huge oversight.”
Interconnection: a long slog
Compared to other grids, many experts consider the ERCOT system to be a lean, green, power-producing machine. Its free-market system had led to low energy bills and made Texas No. 1 in wind power in the U.S.
“The ERCOT market is relatively efficient and clean compared to many other markets,” Webber said. “We have been building cleaner forms of power (wind, solar, and gas) and shutting down or reducing the operation of coal plants. And, overall prices are lower.”
But that’s also led to a smaller gap between power supply and peak demand, a measure known as reserve margin. ERCOT maintains the smallest reserve margin of any of the eight regional grids in the U.S.
ERCOT is an energy-only market, meaning that producers only get paid for the power they generate. In other systems, power plant owners can make money by keeping their plant at the ready, available in case of emergencies.
Some critics of the ERCOT system say that if only Texas had such a capacity market, the blow from the winter storm wouldn’t have been as severe. But others say a Texas capacity market wouldn’t make much of a difference. At most, it would only add a handful of gigawatts worth of new power plants to the grid.
In February, ERCOT lost more than 30 gigawatts worth of generation capacity because of plants that broke down or sputtered with limited natural gas supplies. The early June squeeze came when around 12 gigawatts went offline.
“Other markets in the U.S. have problems, such as wildfires in California or blackouts after Hurricane Sandy, so it’s hard to say that a different market design makes the system impervious to the ravages of nature,” Webber said.
Climate scientists say those ravages will only get worse as human activity continues to accelerate global warming. Texas has seen a doubling of 100-degree-plus-days in the last 40 years. Scientists are more mixed about the influence of climate change on Winter Storm Uri, as the February storm was named, though some have said there’s a clear link.
One benefit of embracing a capacity market is that it would make it easier for Texas to connect the ERCOT grid to adjacent grids. During good times, Texas could export its abundant power to other states. During disasters, it would be easier to draw more power from outside.
But connecting to other grids would be a long slog. According to Smith, building the necessary transmission wires and aligning the proper regulations would take at least 10 years.
From Gold-Williams’ perspective, anything Texas can do to “broaden its portfolio” will help, she told board members in a meeting this month.
“Now there are more regulations, and there are more pressures that come along with that, but I definitely think as a state we should be discussing interconnection,” she said.
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