More power plant woes likely if Texas drought drags into winter


A number of Texas power plants may need to cut back operations or shut down completely if the state’s severe drought continues into the fall, an official with Texas’ main transmission manager told FuelFix.

At least one North Texas power plant has had to reduce how much it generates because the water level in its cooling reservoir has fallen significantly, said Kent Saathoff, vice president of system planning and operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

If the state’s drought continues for much longer and water levels continue falling at other power plant reservoirs, other units could be forced to curtail operations or shut-down completely, Saathoff said.

“Right now we don’t have a significant problem with it, but it could become one,” Saathoff said in an interview. “This has been the driest 12-month stretch we’ve seen in Texas in a long time.”

ERCOT has declared power emergencies several times this summer as record demand met a large number of unplanned power plant outages. Plant operators say the long hot summer has also meant more wear-and-tear due to longer operating hours for power plants.

On Aug. 4 the state came close to initiating rolling blackouts when the margin between power supply and demand grew too  thin. It would have been just the fourth time in 21 years the state would have taken such extreme measures.

ERCOT – which oversees the high voltages transmission system that connects 75 percent of the state, including most major cities – can call on industrial customers to cut about 1,500 megawatts of demand during emergencies.

And in a few cases there are programs where utilities are able to temporarily cut residential demand during peak hours – Austin Energy has been able to cut 35 to 45 megawatts of peak demand by cycling off air conditioners in about 90,000 homes twice per hour for 10 minutes.

But with those resources close to tapped out during recent peak demand days, ERCOT asked two power plant operators – Garland Power & Light and NRG Energy – to bring two power plants each out of mothballs to have available through the end of October.

Garland’s two 61 megawatt gas-fired units were online this week while the two NRG gas-fired units located on the Houston Ship Channel are expected to be ready by Sept. 1.

ERCOT may need to ask other power plant operators to bring other mothballed units back online this winter if the drought continues, Saathoff said.

“There’s another 2,000 megawatts of mothballed capacity we can call on, but it will take a couple of months for them to come back,” he said.

For the time being, that appears to be all ERCOT can do to deal with the drought, he said.

“The bottom line is there’s not much we can do absent rain,” Saathoff said. “Cooling reservoirs just aren’t being replenished.”

Categories: Electricity, Social, Weather
Tom Fowler

26 Responses

  1. Becca says:

    Mike H.

    Tires are as toxic as coal, if not more so. This is not a clean energy source. It is a way of reducing the size of the waste problem and transforming the poisons into poisons of greater magnitude as well as toxic ash residue.

    Natural gas is a fossil fuel which is clean burning. Tires are made from fossil fuels including coal and are extremely toxic as well as acidic to the oceans and the planet. What a backwards approach to the problem!!!

    Just because it meets state or EPA rules means nothing. The industries probably eliminated those rules when the EPA libraries were closed down during the Bush-Cheney administration after meeting in closed doors by vested interests which came with huge donations. Actually, it means that the right to life and health is not important. The only thing that matters is protection of the corporate owned government!

  2. Becca says:

    Fracking takes at least 6 million gallons per well per day of “fresh” water. That means not salt water. The fresh water may be free from poisons or may be poisonous. It is not clear that they separate the toxic water from the clean water. And, while rainwater (if it rains) can replenish groundwater sources, along with the water from creeks, rivers, and ponds, that water may not be as clean as the water that is taken out of commission by fracking for natural gas in shales.

    Add to this fresh water the toxic, unregulated fracking chemicals (which have been exempted by former President Bush and VP (Halliburton CEO) Dick Cheney from the clean air, clean water, and clean drinking water laws (which govern bottled water as well as tapped water sources).

    The fracking chemicals must be toxic or why would Bush and Cheney go through all the work of exempting them from public health laws and forbidding the US EPA from taking action?

    Even if you have the best reverse osmosis and carbon filtration system money can buy, without standards or identification of the fracking chemicals, we and our families are not covered with protection from the toxic wastes.

    Furthermore, the 6 million gallons of water along with the hazardous chemicals wastes are either dumped into surface impounds –all of which will ultimately leak into groundwater whether or not they are lined; dumped directly into surface waters and into the Gulf of Mexico; or injected into deep wells. Those injected into deep wells, have caused earthquakes to occur in Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, and other states, possibly into Virginia, as well.

    If contaminated water from fracking wastes are not bad enough, explosions from injection of fracking compounds, water that can become infammable, as well as toxic, homes, schools, and other buildings that explode can be worse. As well as the loss of human lives, and the lives of all creatures great and small.

    This is compliments of corporations that allege the technology is safe. Safe for them because they’ve been exempted from regulations. But, not safe for infants and children, and everyone’s family.

    We can have clean energy. Clean energy is not coal, and it is not natual gas which still contains toxic hydrocarbons and mercury; and it is not shale, coal tar, or oil. Texas has lots of potentially clean energy. It’s elected and appointed officials have just been paid off by dirty energy.

    God gives us the sun and wind, which open minded countries harvest for clean energy. Why is Texas so closed minded and dragging its feet?

  3. Becca says:

    There is no such thing as “clean coal”–this is pure green wash!

    Even if C02 is sequestered, there’s methane, another potent greenhouse gas. Plus, there’s huge quantities of mercury (brain and nervous system poison), arsenic (carcinogen), radionuclides (bone carcinogen is people and other animals), lead (brain poison), cadmium (heart/cardiovascular poison), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (carcinogens) and more, far more. From cradle to grave coal, especially filthy burning lignite coal produces more toxins to the health of all beings, plants, waters, including acidic seas, acid precipitation including rain water, than any other fuel in the world.
    Acid rain, from sulfur emissions, is almost entirely due to coal burning.

    The only reason coal has been cheap in the past, is because there have been zero environmental regulations on coal to protect the lives of human beings and other animals. What’s more important? Cheap coal, or your child’s life and health?

    Physicians cannot save what bad Congressional, Presidential, Gubernatorial, and Legislative Policy trashes to protect corporations over public health. From mining, to transport, to burning, coal is a filthy, environmental toxin that poisons to fisheries in the oceans and on land with mercury emissions, poisons agriculture with toxic fall out, and poisons each and everyone of us with its toxic emissions. Coal is not clean!

  4. Mike H. says:

    CalPine built a new power plant near San Jose, CA, that burns old tires and natural gas, yet meets all the California and EPA pollution rules. And, they use reclaimed water for it’s cooling. So, there are answers out there.

    David Gower: It’s hard to tell if this is another bad drought cycle for Texas, but it’s always possible. It rained much more and longer into the spring this year in California, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. Meanwhile, the nothern Plains are still having flooding issues. And, former Intel CEO Craig Barrett called for the Gov’t. requiring low flow toilets some years, to ease water issues in general. And, yes, flushing with “gray water” sources is a simple no-brainer, but it’s not often done.

  5. GTM Dara says:

    Mark from Louisiana, try thinking about solar power. Doesn’t need water, just grid storage…it can be done, won’t pollute, brings jobs to Texas that can’t be outsourced, and reduces our dependence on coal and oil.

  6. David Gower says:

    I hope we are not seeing a drought cycle similar to the one in the 1950s. If so, we have a long way to go and perhaps a conservative decision would be to plan for a more worst-case scenario. Water has always been critical in West Texas but not so much in the rest of the state.
    Papa Ray – In addition to looking at desalinization we might compare the cost of increasing water supplies from whatever sources available versus the costs of the various conservation and/or recycling methods or techniques. Several years ago there came into effect new standards for low flow plumbing fixtures including the 1.6 gallon per flush toilette. Generally, I am against the heavy hand of government dictating things to us but in retrospect and with our current situation I think many of us might agree that the 1.6 gpf toilette conservation initiative might have been prudent. Tom Fowler, that might be an interesting follow-up idea for all these draught stories. How much water has been saved by the 1.6 toilettes since implementation of this standard?
    If we wanted to, there are a lot of other things we could do to save water. There are not any technical barriers to building-in recycled water methods within our homes. There is no reason why we can’t use the drain water from sinks, showers, tubs and washing machines to activate those 1.6 toilettes. Those same sources of water are suitable to water our yards, trees and shrubs too. I know these recycling/conservation techniques would be most cost effective. I am disappointed that our West Texas friends have not been leaders in the field of water recycling. Do we have to have the heavy hand of government make us do the smart thing?

  7. stromboli says:


  8. Mike H. says:

    Papa Ray: Good point. Desalinization is not cheap, but it’s better than no water. Growth without planning for water sources is unwise. And, There’s been shale gas frackers help themselves (without permit or purchasing) to water from rivers, creeks, and even fire hydrants, the last leaving some water systems in peril. Of course, they can also build some gas fired “peaker” power plants to help out, but they are sure slow to do that, even with all that new gas from shale around.

  9. steve says:

    Dont yall look they were gas plants Mothballed EPA has very few rules on plants. companys pick the one to shutdown in and who to lay off it has to do with bottem 1999 texas had some of cheapest power in nation look were we are not now for price.Geez

  10. mdstprpsl says:

    Mr Fowler: it appears that you’ve scared the little bunnies. They’re thumping and running in circles again. Run, little bunnies, run. Obama is coming to get you.

  11. GAPlatt says:

    Many of the plants impacted by the drought use lakes as a kind of closed loop cooling system. These plants tend to be decades old, dirty, inefficient and nearing the end of their lives. While the problem of dropping water level or warming lake water can be fixed by installing a true closed loop cooling system using cooling towers, this option is probably not economically viable for these old plants. In addition, this fix would take about a year or longer to implement. Even if the drought end soon, these same plants will probably soon be hit with the EPA’s new 316(b) rule which could outlaw such lake cooling in order to save fish from being entrained in the intakes.

  12. ed-words says:

    This is about Texas (and Perry).

    Isn’t anyone going to give us a Bible quotation?

  13. Papa Ray says:

    Interesting article but there is something that is actually more urgent and important that Texas should have done at least 10 years ago or sooner that has been shoved on the back burner…and I hope not forgotten.

    That is fresh water. Water that can be used as potable water in Texas households and industries.

    Many have pushed for water rights and other water issues but very few have pushed for what Texas is ultimately going to have to rely on. Which is desalinization plants in the gulf and in West Texas and even other northern areas of Texas.

    Texas sets on top of several deep reservoirs of brine water (water with high salt content). So far the only use for the water is in Oil Field Operations. This water is very deep and it is expensive to bring up because of energy costs. In the Gulf, using it’s water the expense is divided into the cost of the desalinization plant and the pipelines (and pumps) that would be needed to share that water with the northern and western parts of Texas.

    There has been a small faction of Texas leaders and citizens that have been pushing for these plants for about twenty years. They mostly have been laughed at and pushed aside as know nothing scaredy cats for years.

    Perhaps now some in Texas Government will realize that they were right and that without these desalinization plants Texas is going to suffer a near shutdown because of the lack of potable water. Individual cities now are almost out of water and have turned to using (building) non-potable waste water reclamation plants.

    The tech for desalinization plants is available world wide. Not only in Japan and other countries that have almost perfected this equipment and technology but even here in the U.S. Yes it is expensive to first build the plant but upkeep and maintenance of the plants is affordable. But even if it were twenty times as expensive as it is, without good water parts of Texas are going to become uninhabitable in the near future.

    So where are all the articles and discussions in Texas about our long term water problems? Where are the articles and discussions about how this critical danger to Texas has been ignored for decades?

    Actually it is long past discussion time. Urgent Action is required NOW.

  14. Dave says:

    Wind and solar are not a 24 hour a day solution by themselves. You have to have a base load generation capacity with natural gas, nuclear and clean coal. And as we have an abundance of shale gas, it makes no real economic sense to keep open old, inefficient coal fired plants. This is not a Perry or an Obama factor, just common sense.

  15. Dave says:

    All across the nation we are shutting in lignite plants, most of which run without any substantial emission controls, and replacing them with new natural gas fired combined cycle power plants.

  16. Mark from Louisiana says:

    How many electric plants in Texas is the EPA going to shut down? What will you guys do for power after they are shut down?

  17. armstrmb says:

    Why doesn’t this article mention the action that the EPA is bringing against Texas power producers? I heard a representative for ERCOT on the radio this morning outlining the things the Obama administration is directing against our electric industry. If you think summer electric rates are high, just wait for the Obama rates in January.

    • Tom Fowler says:

      The possible impact on Texas power plants has been talked about and written about repeatedly and will likely be again. With this item I was focusing on the drought issue specifically, since it appears that’s another potential problem.

  18. ProfesorC says:

    “RickPerry”…. Texas has led the country in growth of wind power over the last 10 years. What evidence is there that anything is blocking the development of wind in Texas? We DO have a shortage of long-distance transmission lines but that seems to be a right-of-way issue as well as an environmental one.

    So, show me the data where the governor is slowing wind energy!

  19. Dave says:

    What about bringing in some fast track simple cycle power plants and power barges??

    We could have at least 200 MW in about 3 months

  20. T.C. says:

    ERCOT fails to get in front of the growing drought and RELIABLE power generating capacity. No matter how many plants come out of mothball status, you must have water. There should be more stringent water conservation measures taken and not assume it’s a “temporary” situation. The Chronicle article mentioning poor funding for Water infrastructure was an eye opener. Assessing an annual fee $3-5 per household was met with opposition, cited as a tax.. Typical Republican philosophy. Water conservation will go so far. Maybe Republicans will “pray” for a drenching rainfall. What’s practical and common sense escapes them.

    As for ERCOT, your lack of fore sight and making erroneous assumptions on power capacity is quite sad. Why all of sudden during the hottest periods that plants go down for “maintenance”. Why can’t those be performed during fall/winter.. High profits on kwh rates when less power is available. ERCOT mgmt team should be held accountable and replaced by more astute personnel.

    • Tom Fowler says:

      Power plants plan major maintenance projects during the so-called shoulder months of spring and fall. Plants have to schedule them far in advance. Unplanned outages happen daily among the 550 or so power generating units throughout the state for various reasons and the rate picks up in teh summer if the plants are running for a lot longer at top capacity. It’s kind of like having a fleet of 550 cars that you drive around the 610 Loop at 80 mph for 18 hours per day with the a/c blasting. Eventually, some of them are going to develop some problems that need to be fixed and can’t wait for the next scheduled oil change.

      Also keep in mind ERCOT doesn’t manage or oversee the power plants. They manage the high voltage grid that those plants hook into. It’s individual utilities etc. that run the plants.

  21. ess says:

    not one mention of emissions or EPA in this article, but we still have some fool blaming the effects of the worst drought ever recorded in texas (and ERCOT’s inability to properly plan for this possiblity) on treehuggers and/or obama.

    i love how people like to chime in on matters they have no clue about.

  22. JackHughes says:

    After last winter’s blackouts, it would seem that bringing those “mothballed” power plants back online would be a no-brainer.

  23. Rick Perry says:

    For the past ten years, the Rick Perry administration has blocked the expansion of wind turbine generators and solar power in Texas. West Texas has enough wind and sun to provide 100% of Texas electric power needs, but Perry is “married” to the coal plant operators who have given him millions of dollars while filling the lungs of the children of Texas with cancer causing poison. Thanks Rick Perry.

    It does not help that companies such as Perry Homes continue to build poorly constructed homes that cost twice as much to cool as necessary, but Perry Homes gives millions of dollars to Rick Perry and so Texas continues to have the lowest standards for home construction in the nation.

  24. Thomas Paine says:

    I know! Let’s give the EPA MORE power, so they can put up more roadblocks. I wonder if the greenie weenies will ever understand the phrase, “consequences of one’s actions.”