By Sneha Dey, Mitchell Ferman, Jaden Edison, and Jayme Lozano
Texas Tribune, Jul 14, 2022
In the sweltering heat, Everett Grey on Wednesday wearily turned up their thermostat to help lessen the stress on the state’s electricity system.
Grey set the temperature to 80 degrees at their aunt’s Denton home, where they have been petsitting for their family’s 60-pound poodle. They also unplugged most household appliances and closed the blinds.
“I’ve got this horrible mindset that I can fix the grid. So I just took a shower in the dark,” Grey said.
Twice this week the state’s main power grid operator has asked Texans to cut back on their energy use. And back in May, ERCOT asked Texans to conserve power during a heat wave that coincided with six power plant outages.
Asking people to reduce electricity usage is the first step ERCOT takes when the stability of Texas’ power grid is threatened. The grid must keep supply and demand in balance at all times, and when it falls below its safety margin of excess supply, the grid operator takes additional precautions to avoid blackouts. The all-time record for demand has already been broken several times this summer.
A spokesperson for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said some Texans responded to this week’s requests. Demand on the grid was reduced on Monday by 500 megawatts during the time of the first conservation request; on Wednesday, demand was reduced by at least 100 megawatts. In the end, the grid remained stable and ERCOT did not have to implement any serious emergency measures this week.
But tight grid conditions have become a source of anxiety, confusion and trauma, and conservation requests are a reminder that the state still struggles to keep up with the growing demand for power. Residents like Grey have responded to ERCOT’s pleas, while other Texans say the grid’s stability is the responsibility of state leaders.
Grey, a student at the University of North Texas, is going to extremes to help conserve power because they’re terrified of experiencing blackouts after the February 2021 winter storm, when millions of Texas residents were without power for days in subfreezing temperatures. A combination of cold weather across the state and skyrocketing demand for energy shut down power plants, as well as the natural gas facilities that supply them with fuel. Hundreds of people died.
This week, some Texans who need power the most also wanted to help.
Inside a north Houston community center that served as a designated cooling facility for people to avoid the heat on Wednesday, Willetha Miller parked her walker, sat on a bench and sipped a Sprite as she waited for her ride home. Next to her was a blue “beat the heat” sign, sponsored by energy giant Reliant.
“I need AC because I have lung problems,” she said.
Miller, 58, was at the cooling facility only briefly. She said she would attempt to do her part to conserve energy when she went home.
“When I get home I might turn on the fan and see if I can deal with it for a while,” she said.
Wednesday’s call for conservation came after a combination of higher-than-expected outages at coal and natural gas-fired power plants, as well as low winds and scorching temperatures. Solar power, which has performed well this summer, also struggled Wednesday to produce as much electricity as expected, ERCOT said, because of some dark clouds over solar farms in West Texas.
Texas is facing extreme heat conditions this year, with much of the state enduring temperatures above 100 degrees. Climate change has made Texas heat both hotter and longer lasting. The average daily minimum and maximum temperatures in Texas have both increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 125 years. The state just saw its hottest December on record since 1889.
Miller said she has trouble breathing when it’s hot out, but she understands the grid operator needs help from Texans to protect the state’s power network.
“But there’s got to be something for people that have health issues,” Miller said. “Everyone can’t get up and go to a cooling center. I’m on a walker — I can’t go to no cooling center all the time.”
ERCOT’s appeal to conserve energy was voluntary, which means some Texans could choose not to respond. Nicole Nagy, 40, said she already practiced energy conservation in her everyday life and was not going to “ride the rollercoaster” that is the unpredictability of the grid’s stability and ERCOT’s calls for conservation. The legal assistant spent Wednesday afternoon in the shade of a large tree at Austin’s Barton Springs Pool with one of her five children.
Pflugerville resident Chris Lee did not change his energy habits on Wednesday either. The 38-year-old jeweler said he generally tries to conserve energy to keep his electricity bill low, turning up the thermostat to 76 degrees before he leaves the house. But he said the government shouldn’t have to ask Texans to take on the responsibility of protecting the power grid.
“People should be able to have the thermostat at wherever they want it,” Lee said, while eating a meal from Chick-fil-A in the air-conditioned Barton Creek Square Mall. “The government needs to come up with innovative ways to keep the power grid up or get [electricity] from somewhere else.”
For residents in a swath of southeast Texas, ERCOT’s conservation calls aren’t a concern. They are part of a different power grid: the Eastern Interconnection, the power grid that covers the eastern part of the United States.
Seated on the patio of Mahoney’s Texish Bar & Restaurant in The Woodlands, Mike Hendricks, who was off from work on Wednesday and went shopping for his husky, Reaper, said he wasn’t told to conserve electricity.
“Hadn’t heard anything about that today,” Hendricks said of the conservation appeal.
Hendricks said he keeps the thermostat at his home set at 69 degrees.
In Lubbock, on the other side of the state, Angela Flores said she takes conservation alerts seriously because she doesn’t want to face power outages.
Lubbock wasn’t always part of ERCOT’s grid — the region joined ERCOT last May, three months after the winter storm. At the time, Lubbock officials said the plans to join ERCOT had been years in the making and were too far ahead to change.
Flores said she moved to Lubbock before the winter storm. When she was reading about the problems with ERCOT during the disaster, she said she felt like she had moved just in time to avoid them.
Now that Lubbock is part of ERCOT’s grid, she’s cautious.
“We’ve kept the thermostat at 75 during the day, which isn’t great, but it’s better than the alternative,” Flores said. “I couldn’t imagine if we lost power — I’d be worried about my son. It’s just too hot to be without power.”
Disclosure: University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.