Lone Star State gets spring energy scare

The Texas power grid is already swooning



April 18, 2024 - 2:31 PM

Power lines leave the Lubbock Power and Light power plant on Highway 84 during the snow storm on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Lubbock, Texas. Lessons learned for the massive power outage have yet to be learned. [Justin Rex/For A-J Media]

Summer is two months away, yet the Texas power grid is already swooning. On Friday the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot) asked power generators to postpone scheduled maintenance early this week “to help alleviate potential tight conditions” as temperatures rise into the not-so-sizzling 80s.

The grid typically has excess power-generating capacity in the spring owing to mild weather. There’s also an abundance of solar and wind power. This is why plants go off-line for repairs in the spring to prepare for the summer when electricity use surges as people ramp up the air conditioning.

Yet merely warm spring weather is now enough to push the Texas grid to the brink. Tuesday’s high is forecast to be 89 degrees in Dallas and 84 in Houston. These temperatures shouldn’t force grid operators to break a sweat to keep the lights on, but they are.

One culprit is skyrocketing electricity demand from population growth, new data centers and manufacturing plants. A surge in Bitcoin prices has also made crypto-mining more profitable. Many miners located servers in Texas because — get this — they can arbitrage grid crunches to get paid to reduce power usage.

Data centers accounted for about 2.5% of U.S. electricity in 2022 and are expected to make up more than 20% by 2030. Artificial intelligence is magnifying this demand. A web search uses less than one watt of power while an AI-powered search can require 100 watts. Training an AI search uses around 1,000 watts.

The spring grid S.O.S. doesn’t augur well for the summer or the rest of the country. The past winter was one of the mildest on record, which eased the growing strain on the grid. Yet this summer is forecast to be one of the hottest, which means Americans will almost certainly be told to conserve power to prevent outages — i.e., don’t plan on plugging in your Tesla after getting home from work.

One risk is that power-plant maintenance that is delayed or canceled will lead to more plants failing in the summer when they are needed. Better get that emergency generator while it’s still in stock.