Power plants in Texas run non-stop

(Bloomberg) — As the scorching Texas heat drives electricity demands to record highs, the state’s grid operator is ordering plants to run at an historic pace, often forcing them to delay maintenance to keep producing power. That’s helped keep the lights on for now, but the short-term focus is putting even more strain on a system that’s already stretched to the limit.

Twice in the past week officials have urged Texans to limit electricity use on scorching afternoons as demand came dangerously close to overwhelming supply. According to Michele Richmond, executive director of Texas Competitive Power Advocates, a generator industry group, there are now growing concerns about how long power plants can sustain the grueling pace when running non-stop.

“Things will break,” she said. “We have an aging fleet that is being operated harder than ever.”

To meet the surge in power demand, grid operator Ercot relies heavily on a mechanism called Reliability Unit Commitments to ensure there is enough power available. Plants are regularly instructed to come on line or stay on line and skip scheduled maintenance. The measure also overrides shutdowns for economic or other reasons. And Ercot is applying the rule more than ever as the state fights battle after battle with extreme weather.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, as the operator is officially known, claimed 2,890 hours of RUCs system-wide in the first half of this year. That’s more than triple the 801 hours in the first half of 2021, according to Ercot’s independent market monitor data provided by Richmond. For the whole of 2020 there were 224 RUC hours.

The problem is that delaying repairs now is likely to haunt plant owners, Richmond said.

“If you put off preventative maintenance because it’s necessary for reliability, it increases the likelihood that you’ll need a more comprehensive shutdown later,” when assets start to fail, she said.

Growing population, crypto

The situation underscores the Texas grid’s need for short-term solutions to a long-term problem. The state is struggling with a population boom that has spurred demand. Crypto mining has also surged over the past year, bringing with it the industry’s energy-intensive operations. Meanwhile, climate change has made extreme weather events that drive up electricity consumption more likely and more severe – leading to situations like a deadly freeze in February 2021 that caused power outages across the state.

Brad Jones, interim CEO of Ercot, is aware that he is walking a fine line. On the one hand, there have been six occasions in the past year that the use of RUCs has enabled the operator to avoid reporting network emergencies. Or as Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said at a hearing on June 22: Six times when the power grid would otherwise have been “on the verge of rolling blackouts.”

However, Jones says he knows that the need to keep plants running increases the risk of outages. For example, a major concern at this time of year is boiler tube leaks, especially on older plants. These leaks don’t always mean that a facility needs to be shut down immediately, but if not closely monitored, they can lead to major and more costly repairs.

“Typically, a generator can run for a while if there is a water leak,” Jones said in an interview. “The question is how long that is.”

The grid operator is in constant contact with the generators and is working to give them time to make necessary repairs when conditions permit, Jones said. Ultimately, the state needs more power plants, and regulators are working to make that happen, he said.

Ercot and other operators face dual challenges, said Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin. Most companies schedule maintenance in the spring and fall, when the weather is mild and power consumption is typically lower.

But climate change means those windows of temperate weather are getting shorter. This year e.g. For example, a heat wave in early May forced some generators to skip maintenance. In addition, periods of heat last longer and put a strain on power plants that run at full speed for weeks.

Maintaining power plants — especially older ones — can be time-consuming and complicated, said Webber, who also serves as the chief technology officer of Energy Impact Partners, a clean-tech venture fund

“They have to dismantle the facility somehow,” he said. “You can’t do that in a few hours.”

All of this is exacerbated by the state’s aging fleet. The average age of coal-fired power plants in Texas is about 50 years, and natural gas-fired power plants average about 30 years.

“It’s like humans — we need to rest and recover,” Webber said. “If we run at full speed for a long time, we can collapse.”

©2022 Bloomberg LP

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