Texas power market rapidly growing in renewables

Power companies in Texas and nationwide are ramping up in wind and solar-powered generation, while making progress on new technologies to ward off cyber-attacks that threaten the grid.

Texas is an ideal market for growth and mix of power sources because of its abundance of natural gas, oil, wind and sunshine, said Bill Magness, the president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s power load.

“It might be really hot, but there’s a lot of wind above us and a lot of oil below us,” Magness said Thursday at the IHS Energy CERAWeek conference in downtown Houston.

While Texas leads the way in wind production, the state and power sector are rapidly working to advance digital technologies at power plants and substations, he said.

Such software and data analytics improvements are needed to become more predictive about power needs and to keep the grid balanced. New technologies also protect the power plants and substations from cyber and physical attacks.

“We have concerns as everyone else does about cyber security,” Magness said. “There’s some extremely sophisticated hardware and software.”

Power companies and utilities aren’t the old and stodgy industries people imagine, said Chris Crane, president and CEO of Chicago-based Exelon Corp., which is building wind farms and gas-fired power plants in Texas.

The new turbines the power plants are adding are digitally sophisticated, Crane said, but more work is still being done to account for cyber-security concerns. What happens if a major attack succeeds and knocks out a lot of power in a major city, he speculated.

“Think about the civil unrest in Chicago or Baltimore or Philadelphia,” Crane said, if power is out for days or weeks. “That kind of dialogue is just starting now.”

In Texas’ deregulated power and electricity markets, the state is focusing digitally on improving the shopping environment for consumers, including weeding out companies trying to trick and trap people into bad contracts, said Texas Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Donna Nelson.

Some companies are advertising rates of 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour on the state’s “Power to Choose” website that are actually much more expensive once customers lock in.

“Those rates are too good to be true,” Nelson said. “We opened up a project to look at those rates and go after those bad actors.”

The good news, she said, is choice exists and customers can choose electricity plans that are 100 percent wind power or plans that offer free electricity overnight or on weekends.

And Texas now has more wind power than even its leaders ever expected. The state has attracted a lot of foreign investors, including Germany-based E.ON.

Patrick Woodson, the chairman E.ON wind in North America, said people believed years ago that 5,000 megawatts of wind capacity would “crater the grid” in Texas with unreliability issues.

The next wave of Texas growth is much more solar farms being built as their costs come down substantially each year, Woodson said.

 

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