Dottie Roark

The expected above-average summer temperatures and resulting high energy demands may lead to conservation alerts to reduce the likelihood of rolling blackouts.

These alerts are one tool in the critical energy conservation process that resulted in a rolling blackout across the state of Texas last winter, said ERCOT spokesperson Dottie Roark. Although a rolling blackout is not expected to occur this summer, a higher-than-normal number of forced power generation outages during a period of high demand, or record-breaking weather conditions similar to last summer, could result in a rolling blackout, she said.

There are many steps followed prior to the start of a rolling blackout, Roark said.

“It is the last stage of our emergency procedure,” she said. “We keep a certain amount of reserve generation facilities on hand at all times and can even transfer power from outside the state if need be.”

Roark said there are customers who have volunteered to be dropped first from power generation in the case of a shortage. She said they are compensated for their participation and these steps will normally control the issue.

Austin Energy spokesperson Ed Clark said Austin Energy has taken steps to minimize the effects of a rolling blackout, should one be necessary again. When the rolling blackout occurred last winter, Austin had only 44 out of all 400 circuits available to participate in the shutoffs. There are now 144 circuits in the grid and now no single area will need to remain shut off as long, and the damages to the residents of those areas will be lessened, Clark said.

“Last winter, homes were being shut off for 45 minutes to an hour at a time,” Clark said. “With the availability of these circuits, I would expect it to be 10 to 15 minutes. It is very unlikely that we would see a rolling blackout as damaging as last winter’s.”

A woman walks below the powerlines on 5th Street and Lamar Monday afternoon. A recent report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas found that due to an insufficient supply of energy to meet growing demand, Texas could start experiencing rolling blackouts starting in 2012.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas issued a 10-year outlook report last week stating that Texas could face rolling blackouts starting in the summer of 2012 because of reduced energy generation and increased demand.

The report cites potentially extreme summer temperatures and power plant construction problems as factors that require rolling blackouts to maintain the reliability of the electrical grid. ERCOT spokeswoman Dottie Roark said rolling blackouts use controlled power outages to balance the energy supply. Electrical companies cut off energy to different areas in the electrical grid for 15 to 40 minutes until the supply is balanced, Roark said.

Roark said the amount of energy held on reserve should equal 13.75 percent of the total energy generated in order to handle power outages and scheduled maintenance. Given the amount of energy that is currently produced and the expected demand, ERCOT predicts the percentage of energy reserves to drop to 12 percent during the summer of 2012.

“The report is a signal to the market about future energy demands,” Roark said. “It gives them incentives to make new energy plants to meet that demand.”

Roark said ERCOT is attempting to handle the generation shortage by increasing the number of customers paid to shut off their energy use during emergency situations.

Roark said ERCOT is responsible for balancing the supply and demand of energy in Texas in order to make sure the grid’s equipment is always running at the appropriate level. If the demand for energy increases and the energy supply is not enough to handle the demand, the grid equipment can be damaged and cause an uncontrolled blackout.

Juan Ontiveros, UT’s executive director of Utilities and Energy Management, said whether or not the rolling blackouts occur depends on what the energy market does, but the shortages will not affect the UT campus.

“On the main campus, we self-generate all of the energy, including electricity, for the majority of the campus, which includes all of the research facilities,” Ontiveros said. “However, we do rely on the ERCOT grid as a backup in the event we were to experience an unexpected failure of generation.”

Ontiveros said there is little chance for UT’s energy generation facilities to face problems, and the University is committed to meeting the energy needs of the campus.

“The main campus has experienced a reliability of 99.999 percent over the last 35 years,” Ontiveros said. “Over the last 10 years, we have made significant investments in the campus utility systems so that current and future campus energy needs are met reliably and cost-effectively.”

Austin Energy spokesperson Carlos Cordova said all energy companies in Texas have to participate in the rolling blackout even if they have enough energy to meet their demands.

“The voltage has to balance out. Otherwise, it creates even worse outages,” Cordova said. “Rolling blackouts are necessary to prevent a total blackout.”

Cordova said Austin Energy has increased the number of circuits in their system over the past year and will be able to spread outages more evenly throughout the city in the event of a rolling blackout.

Cordova said it is important for people to conserve energy to prevent potential shortages during the winter and summer seasons when energy use reaches its peak.

“Everyone will have to continue to conserve until more generation is brought online,” Cordova said. “Especially if temperatures are as high as last summer and the drought continues.”

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: UT not to be affected electrical blackouts 

Record levels of electricity use in Texas last week led to concerns about possible statewide rolling blackouts, but such an event would not affect UT because the campus runs its own power grid.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which supplies about 85 percent of the state’s electricity, required several large industrial customers to shut down Thursday when the state set a new demand record at 68,294 megawatts during peak hours Wednesday. The company canceled a power watch Friday in response to reduced demand.

Dottie Roark, a spokeswoman for the council, said high demand could continue if record temperatures persist. The council instituted blackouts in February after extreme cold temperatures led to increased energy use. In high temperatures, people run more air conditioning, which she said strains power generation units.

“The drought is causing some units to have issues with the temperature of the coolant they use for their generation units, which means they may have to run at lower capacity,” Roark said in an email.

Rolling blackouts temporarily shut off power to prevent uncontrolled shutdowns, Roark said.

“Those massive blackouts are very hard to recover from and can take days or weeks to restore the units,” she said.

Juan Ontiveros, UT’s Utilities and Energy Management executive director, said lack of wind, which helps supply the council’s power, has contributed to the company’s difficulties during the heat wave.

“Part of their capacity comes from wind,” Ontiveros said. “One of the problems with high temperatures is that in high temperatures you don’t get wind.”

Ontiveros said the UT power plant provides most buildings on the main campus with electricity, but does not power the Pickle Research Campus. Neither the main campus nor the Pickle Research Campus experienced significant problems when the council last required blackouts Feb. 2.

The UT power grid has not had large increases in demand for this time of year like the city and state, Ontiveros said. If it became necessary to reduce power, the University would turn off the cooling system while chillers would maintain the temperature. A 4-million-gallon cold water storage tank next to the San Jacinto Garage could supply cooling for up to four hours. The University could also use the statewide grid, if necessary.

“We produce all of the power that we need, but we’re connected to [the council],” Ontiveros said.

Austin Energy reached a record in peak electricity usage at 2,685 megawatts Tuesday, said Leslie Sopko, Austin Energy spokeswoman. If asked to shed usage by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the utility would institute blackouts for 10 minutes at a time through 71 of its circuits, while 318 circuits would remain, maintaining emergency services and hospitals.

“We don’t cut off those circuits because those are critical services that we need to keep the lights on,” Sopko said.

Printed on Monday, August 8th, 2011 as: Statewide blackouts feared possible after record electricity use