Operators of the state power grid have acknowledged breaking their own rules during an incident this week that nearly led to rolling blackouts across Texas.
The incident has also drawn the attention of state regulators, with the staff of the Texas Public Utility Commission opening an inquiry.
At about 6:41 p.m. Tuesday, a sudden drop in West Texas wind power, coupled with an uptick in electric use and other factors, led to a sudden loss of stability on the electric grid.
Engineers immediately went to the second step of an emergency blackout prevention plan and cut power to some large industrial customers.
Terry Hadley, a PUC spokesman, said there hasn’t been such a serious event on the power grid since the state was hit with rolling blackouts on April 17, 2006.
“Step 2 [of the power grid’s emergency plan] is by definition a serious matter,” he said.
Operators of the power grid also acknowledged this week that they violated their own rules by not issuing a general conservation alert during the crisis.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas runs the power grid. The quasi-governmental organization answers to the PUC.
ERCOT officials came under fire after the rolling blackouts in 2006 for not issuing a general alert during that event. As a result, ERCOT rules were changed and now require it to make appeals through the news media for conservation during such emergencies.
ERCOT officials acknowledged that they violated that rule this week because by the time they could have contacted the media, the crisis was over.
In documents filed with state regulators, ERCOT attorneys also said that by appealing for dramatic energy conservation measures, they could have actually made matters worse.
That’s because the organization had already taken steps to restore stability to the grid, ERCOT attorneys said in documents on file with the PUC.
“The detrimental effects and public alarm resulting from ERCOT’s issuance of a media appeal would have outweighed the public benefit of a media appeal because of the short duration and facts surrounding the … event,” ERCOT attorneys wrote.
Mark Dreyfus, chairman of the ERCOT committee responsible for technical and policy issues, said it remains unclear whether the organization should have done something differently Tuesday night, or whether the rules themselves should be changed.
He said ERCOT rules – or “protocols,” which carry the force of law – are part of a living document that often changes.
Dreyfus acknowledged that the rules might change again as a result of Tuesday’s incident.
“We’ll go though this with ERCOT staff and the member companies to review the incident, and we’ll look at the protocols and the procedures and operations and determine whether there are tweaks to be made,” Dreyfus said.
Some wholesale energy prices in West Texas spiked to more than 10 times their typical price during the incident.
But Dan Jones, the independent market monitor for the grid, said he sees no evidence that power companies acted in ways that would unfairly drive up profits.
Jones said he would continue to look at the incident and report to the PUC.
The PUC’s Hadley also said staff members there have begun an inquiry and will probably report to the three commissioners this month.
West Texas wind power production plummeted from about 1,700 megawatts to about 300 megawatts Tuesday night, prompting the crisis. A megawatt is enough electricity to power 500 to 700 homes under normal conditions.
In response, ERCOT cut power to so-called interruptible customers, which are typically large businesses that agree to forgo power during grid emergencies in exchange for lower rates.
Some observers have noted that the incident highlights the inherent challenges associated with the state’s increasing reliance on wind power. Besides requiring the construction of expensive transmission lines, the fickle nature of wind also means that the state cannot depend on the turbines to replace other sorts of generators.
Texas leads the nation in wind power production and is expected to dramatically increase that production.
By R. A. Dyer
1 March 2008
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