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Request to conserve energy shows year-round vulnerability of Texas grid

Some energy experts warn that the recent failings of the state's grid may portend additional shutdowns should temperatures continue to climb this summer.
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No matter the season, customers of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas are learning that they may be better off relying on themselves.

Texans have spent the week keeping cool by fanning themselves and finding shade after the power grid's operator, commonly known as ERCOT, asked that they conserve energy as temperatures rise and several power plants fail.

ERCOT officials haven't pinned down the cause of the mechanical issues that led to the breakdowns just four months after a massive power outage left millions of people in the state without heat or electricity.

But some energy experts warn that the recent failures unmask the vulnerability of the state's grid and that they may portend additional shutdowns should temperatures continue to climb this summer.

"It's not a total surprise that hot weather would strain the grid, only it usually happens in August. That's what we expect and plan for," said Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the university who studies the state's electrical grid, expressed similar concerns about outages so early in the season before the hottest days of summer.

"The number of power plants that were online for outages was a bit concerning, given where we are and the temperature," he told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth. ERCOT officials this week said the number of plants offline for maintenance issues is at least three times the usual number for this time of year, the station reported.

ERCOT, which oversees 90 percent of Texas' energy production, asked residents Monday to limit their electrical usage through Friday because of an energy emergency, with soaring temperatures and a series of mechanical problems at power plants.

Recently, ERCOT said that the chance of summer power outages was less than 1 percent and that rolling blackouts would occur only in extreme circumstances. However, the nonprofit group avoided blackouts Monday only by using reserve power and asking customers to turn up their thermostats, turn off lights and avoid using some appliances, including ovens and washing machines.

In fact, Monday's power crunch included worst-case scenarios such as lower-than-expected wind power, concerns that solar power would drop off at sunset and a larger-than-expected number of breakdowns at traditional power plants.

Webber blamed the shutdowns partly on climate change, in addition to power plants' hitting capacity limits set decades ago.

"We've planned for the weather of the past instead of the weather for the future," he said. "We're getting more heat often and in different seasons than we expect. We're also getting cold more often and with lower temperatures than we expect."

The weaknesses in the Texas power system — the country's only independent electrical service — have been apparent for years.

Federal regulators warned ERCOT a decade ago that its power grid was vulnerable after a 2011 blackout caused by cold weather, although it was not required to act on the recommendations.

More recently, millions of people in Texas went days without power in February as bitter cold and ice caused blackouts. More than 100 people died in the winter storm, state health officials said.

Legislators in recent months adopted two laws mandating that power companies make upgrades to withstand extreme weather. Webber said the measures don't go far enough, because it could be years before the improvements are done and the grid is more dependable.

"They're forcing power plants to winterize in some future year, which doesn't help us for the summer, and they did not include efficiency, they did not include demand response. There's a lot of missed opportunities," he said.

In the meantime, Texans are left to suffer the consequences.

Brandon Mosley, 39, of Houston, who said the grid system has become unreliable, recently bought a generator in case rolling blackouts ever happen again.

"I learned that from the winter storm. My family and I have no faith in ERCOT, the system and the way they do things," he said. "We just want to be prepared for if or when. That way we can maintain our lifestyle."

Keith Taylor, 47, of San Antonio, said he made it even cooler in his home after hearing about ERCOT's call for conservation. ERCOT knew the grid was susceptible to outages and "hiccups" after the winter freeze and should have been more prepared, he said. Taylor said he lost all power during the freeze for 30 hours and had rolling outages for about 36 more.

"I turned my AC down. I made it colder," Taylor said. "Don't call me with that nonsense. I've got kids at home."