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How the Texas power grid braces against rolling blackouts as summer heat looms

By: Jesus Jiminez |

It’s been decades since state power reserves were as depleted as they are now, according to Texas regulators — forcing them to contemplate the worst-case scenario this summer: rolling blackouts.

Such “rotating outages” are a last resort for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and they’ve been necessary only three times on record — and never during even the most sweltering of Texas summers.

ERCOT is forecasting a peak demand of 74,853 megawatts this summer, 1,300 megawatts higher than the all-time peak demand record set July 19, 2018, when temperatures reached 108 degrees at DFW International Airport.

And with backup resources at their lowest levels since the early 2000s, the staff at ERCOT is working to ensure the lights stay on this summer.

Inside ERCOT’s command center in Taylor, northeast of Austin, eight staffers work in shifts around the clock to maintain the reliability of the state’s power grid by balancing power generation and loads.

Another staff member is stationed in Bastrop, in case anything should happen to the Taylor hub.

Each team member is tasked with different responsibilities, including monitoring current demand conditions and generation limits, and looking ahead at the next day to anticipate needs and expected output, said Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s system planning senior director.

Lasher said ERCOT, a nonprofit regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, is like an air traffic controller.

“If you think about an air traffic controller,” he said, “they are sitting at the airport, they’re up in the tower. They don’t own the planes, they don’t own the runway, they don’t own the airport.

ERCOT doesn’t own, build or maintain power lines, Lasher said, but staff members can see when and how much energy is being produced across the state. They use this information to make sure enough power is produced to meet the state’s needs for any given day.

In the event of a rotating outage, a neighborhood would lose power for 10 to 45 minutes — certainly no more than an hour. Certain power consumers are exempt for safety reasons.

To prevent blackouts, ERCOT follows a protocol depending on demand and the available power. The process includes five stages, ranging from normal operating conditions to rotating outages.

After an initial conservation alert, ERCOT issues an energy emergency alert to call on available power supplies. That first line of defense signals that conditions are “starting to get too tight,” said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT.

In the event of a second emergency alert, utilities will interrupt power to large industrial consumers under contract with ERCOT. Typically these interruptions would not affect critical infrastructure such as hospitals.

The third alert, and final resort, throws rotating outages into the mix. ERCOT will ask utility companies to reduce consumption, and utility companies decide where to implement rolling blackouts and for how long.

Lasher said peak demand for the year normally happens in the first couple of weeks of August, when the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston metropolitan areas are typically at their steamiest.

But the last time rotating outages were necessary, it wasn’t hot — but bitterly cold.

The most recent use of rotating outages was in early February 2011, when parts of Texas were hit with a snowstorm and a strong cold spell. The other two instances were in April 2006 and December 1989.

Each season presents a different challenge for ERCOT, Lasher said. Low and high temperatures during the winter and summers create obvious issues, but spring and fall can also be demanding, he said.

Energy producers will often wait until the spring or fall to perform necessary maintenance, reducing available output, Lasher said. With less capacity to produce power, all it takes is an early warm front in the spring or an early cold front in the fall for Texans to start adjusting their thermostats, he said.

This year Texas will head into the summer with a historically low planning reserve, according to Pete Warnken, ERCOT manager of resource adequacy.

There’s a chance, however, that this summer may not be as hot as usual.

With El Niño expected to linger, possibly into the fall, meteorologists expect a wetter-than-average summer. Whether more rain and clouds keep a lid on temperatures, however, is uncertain, said KXAS-TV (NBC5) meteorologist Grant Johnston.

Regardless, ERCOT is bracing itself for record electric usage with demand and temperatures on the rise. There’s also an increased chance that ERCOT will need to issue emergency alerts, but Woodfin said there’s no indication that current resources won’t be sufficient.

“It’s more likely we’ll have to use additional resources … on several occasions this summer,” he said.

To conserve energy during the summer, ERCOT recommends the following:

  • Set programmable thermostats to higher temperatures when no one is home from 3 to 7 p.m. Even 2 to 3 degrees can make a difference.
  • Set pool pumps to run early in the morning or overnight, and shut them off from 4 to 6 p.m.
  • Turn off and unplug nonessential lights and appliances.
  • Avoid using large appliances — like ovens and washing machines — during peak demand hours, especially from 4 to 5 p.m.
  • Businesses should reduce the use of electric lighting and electricity-consuming equipment as much as possible.
  • Large consumers of electricity should consider shutting down or reducing non-essential production processes.