The electrical grid in America can be roughly split into three separate and individual areas. The Eastern Interconnection supplies everything east of the Rockies; The Western Interconnection supplies everything to the west; and The Texas interconnection, supplies Texas. Partly due to a historical desire to be self-sufficient, and partly due to the “Don’t Mess with Texas!” attitude, the lone star state exists in an energy based isolation, wherein the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ECROT) generates and supplies all its own electricity.
This self sufficiency has in the past benefited them by providing a consistent supply of cheap electricity, but it now looks as though it could be a poisoned chalice.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (yellow), ISO-NE of New England (teal) and SaskPower (in red) could face early challenges in providing enough generating capacity. Source: NY Times
In their 2011 long-term reliability assessment the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) projected that ECROT’s reserve margin for peak levels will soon be more than 5% below the recommended 15% level. It may not sound like much, but NERC President and CEO Gerry Cauley told reporters in Washington that the Texas grid is an area of “concern” that will need monitoring to ensure reliability in the future.
The low reserve levels do not meant that the lights will just go out, but at peak times power outages may become more common. In fact due to the extreme summer temperatures recently experienced Texas has already started to see problems. The heat tends to lead to higher electricity demand due to air conditioning, but also has the effect of causing some plants to fail and shutdown. ECROT called on customers to conserve electricity, but even still had to start emergency procedures to prevent total blackouts across wider areas.
"Hopefully we're lucky and we won't be in this situation tomorrow, but I wouldn't bet on it," said Kent Saathoff, vice president of system operations for ERCOT.
The assessment suggested that ECROT could run short by 2013; New England could run short by 2015; and the province of Saskatchewan, which borders North Dakota and Montana, could run short as soon as next year.
The problem is that Texas receives its electricity from old, coal and natural gas power plants that lack environmental controls, and the new EPA limits on mercury emissions, toxic releases, cross-state air pollution, coal ash and cooling water use will require that many plants close; either permanently or just to be retrofitted.
John Moura, NERC's reliability assessment manager announced that about 25,000 MW of plant closings have already been announced in North America and NERC expects an additional 37,000 MW of "accelerated retirements" because of the EPA rules and other factors,
About 600 large plants in Texas are likely to be shut for several months for the installation of pollution controls, and coordinating those shutdowns to avoid local electricity shortages will be a formidable challenge. Although there are about 15,000 plants on the grid, they are mostly small and the 600 to be shut represent a substantial fraction of the state’s generating resources.
Another problem is that many environmentalists are pushing for the new EPA rules to be enforced more quickly, claiming that the companies have already had long enough to prepare. Mark G. Lauby, vice president of the reliability corporation, believes that the rules are already on a short schedule, and that some companies could face a choice of closing some units or running them and violating pollution standards. The logical solution, he said, would be to provide more time for compliance.
By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com