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Explaining ERCOT’s Close Calls Amid Statewide Heat Wave

Last week marked the first time since 2021 that the state’s demand for energy outpaced its supply. Let’s explore what happened.
Alexandra Losoya sun bathes in Zilker Metropolitan Park in Austin while braving the triple-digit heat on June 26, 2023. The entire state is suffering through high temperatures, which makes it difficult for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to manage the demand for power. © Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

For three consecutive days last week, the agency that is tasked with monitoring the power grid pleaded with the public to up their thermostats. The so-called “Conservation Appeal” was the second category of formal alert the Electric Reliability Council of Texas issues as demand ticks ever closer to the total energy supply. If its “appeal” isn’t successful, the state starts turning off the lights.

It didn’t come to that. Demand came within 300 megawatts of reaching the total supply on Saturday—just below 80,000 megawatts—but we never tipped into trouble. ERCOT says it’s because people played nice, heeded its warning, and powered down. There is plenty of skepticism around that claim, but ERCOT’s appeal ended there.

ERCOT had to issue statewide alerts just in case demand ticks above supply. “Current forecasts are showing a potential to enter emergency operations this evening because of expected low wind and potential low solar generation and high demand,” the agency reported.

The reason we’re in a mode of wait-and-see is because there was no relief from the heat anywhere in the state. Texas’ deregulated energy market model works, on paper, because the size of the state. It might be 103 in Dallas, but maybe it’s 85 or 90 closer to the coast. The increase in demand isn’t typically shared across all 254 counties like it was last week.

That’s also why the margin for error was so low during the freeze in February 2021: the whole state needed heat. We’re experiencing the inverse this summer.

Last week’s grid conditions marked one of a handful of times since Winter Storm Uri that demand approached the available supply of power. The requests for conservation this summer came much later in the season than it did last summer, too. Over the weekend, ERCOT blamed lower-producing wind, but the agency’s dashboard showed gas and coal also underperformed, likely because some plants went offline.

Saturday marked the 45th day that we have endured triple digit temperatures this year. (Austin’s 45 consecutive streak ended last month.) We’ve set a record for energy demand 10 different times.

The state also needs to recognize that this is probably going to keep happening in the summers, which highlights the need to increase reliability. Doug Lewin, who writes the Texas Energy and Power newsletter and is the CEO of a consulting company called Stoic Energy, says the state should create electricity plans that allow residents to sell solar back to Texas in times of need. That way, when the sun goes down and solar stops producing, Texas could have a reserve of power that it could deploy.

His newsletter about this idea is a worthy read. In the last few days, he’s noted that battery storage has helped us meet energy demand as it approaches our supply. Lewin also writes that the state should consider instituting demand response programs, which would allow ERCOT to drop thermostats to cool houses below normal when supply is sufficient then bump them up during times of need. This is already happening in San Antonio, whose CPS Energy allows its customers to opt into the service.

But the foundation of the problem is simple: It’s hot. Really, really hot. All over Texas. The solution will require more creativity.

This story originally ran as a piece in the D Brief newsletter, which lands in inboxes every Sunday. Like it? Subscribe here.


Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…