He helps keep the lights on for Texas

H.B. “Trip” Doggett has served as president and chief executive officer of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since 2010. ERCOT, the state grid operator, manages the flow of power to 24 million Texans. Before working for ERCOT, Doggett, an electrical engineer, spent 22 years with Duke Energy. He spoke with the Chronicle recently at ERCOT’s headquarters in Taylor. Excerpts, condensed and edited for clarity:

Q: ERCOT recently released a report on the effect of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plant rules. What’s their impact on Texas and on ERCOT?
A: I think the potential is there for us to lose a significant amount of capacity if those rules move forward. For ERCOT, our key focus is to be sure EPA allows adequate time for replacement plants to be built and for modifications to existing plants.
We’re part of an industry group of our peers that has filed a number of papers with EPA talking about what we call the “reliability safety valve” — a tool that would allow us to say “wait a minute, if you make that an effective date, we don’t believe we can get replacement generation in place or additional transmission built, to reliably serve the load.” Time is the big thing we’ve been asking EPA to consider.

Q: It’s one thing for the EPA to hear that from generators. It’s another to hear it from grid managers. Do you think your message will resonate?
A: I feel confident that they’ll listen. I had the privilege of meeting with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy before she was appointed head of EPA. I found her to be a great listener. I think she understood some of the challenges we have.

Q: What are ERCOT’s priorities for 2015?
A: I think staying on top of the EPA changes would be high on the list. Another thing you may not hear as much about is increasing the amount of demand response (which provides incentives for power conservation during peak demand periods). We’re also looking at distributed generation (rooftop solar and other alternatives to conventional power plants), which is becoming more and more popular. The kind of thing we’re looking at is what changes do we need to make to our model to accommodate less traditional forms of generation or load response, as opposed to increased generation.

Q: Why do you think the role of demand response will grow?
A: ERCOT’s all-time peak load was 68,000 megawatts. Loads over 65,000 megawatts are less than 100 hours a year. Is there was a way we could find a cost-effective manner of controlling residential air conditioning, for instance? If you look at our load on a spring day, residential is a fourth of our load. On a hot summer afternoon, it’s half of our load.
You could have a cost-effective way of rotating residential air conditioning, where you bump your thermostat by three degrees for 20 minutes, which you’d never see. Or pool pumps: it makes no sense for pool pumps to run across peak on a summer afternoon. Yet, there’s 1,000 megawatts of pool pump load in Texas.
A lot of industry is following the price of wholesale electricity. We produce an indicative price — what we think it will be for the next hour. There’s a lot of large consumers like foundries that watch that price. And if they think it’s going to go up to $1,000 in the next hour, they’ll begin to shut their operators down until that price comes down.

Q: Is it ERCOT’s job to make a push for demand response? Or is it up to the retail electric providers to offer plans that reward customers for conservation?
A: ERCOT will do anything we can to help. But it’s up to the REPs. A number of them are doing this. And a number of parties are installing distributed generation with this in mind. For instance, they’d sell it to an industry as a backup generator. And during 75 to 100 hours a year, they might actually crank it up to reduce the load of the customer. As that begins to become more widespread, we need to be able to quantify it and measure the impact to grid. Therefore we’re trying to enhance our model to find a way to have data available to us on that.

Q: Why don’t more people shop for competitively priced power?
A: I don’t know. I live in Georgetown. A waiter at my restaurant talked to me about it. He switched providers and now pays $300 a month less on air conditioning. He was paying like 14 cents per kilowatt hour. He was paying nearly twice what I was. I said “what are you doing?” It was a plan he had inherited from the incumbent provider years ago when deregulation occurred. And he had never looked at it. We’re not responsible for Power to Choose (the online electricity marketplace) at ERCOT, but we help facilitate the ability for people to do it. It’s a shame people aren’t always taking advantage of it. But it’s challenging to figure out which plan is best. It’s not simple.

Q: New transmission lines have been built in the western part of the state to facilitate wind power generation. Is that process finished?
A: There are some enhancements. Changes may be necessary in the Panhandle. The Panhandle has such rich wind resources. We’ve seen more wind generation than we had projected originally to be in that part of the state. If we get above certain thresholds, we’ll need some additional lines or equipment. That may be necessary if more wind locates in the Panhandle. We haven’t exceeded the threshold yet.

Q: What else does ERCOT have planned?
A: One thing we’re going to continue try to do in 2015 is more public outreach. We want to be transparent to the public and alert them on high demand days, or when we have unique operating conditions that create risks. Our hope is to put out a plea for reducing consumption during certain time frames. It’s really more about asking people to be smart. If we know it’s tight tomorrow afternoon from 4 to 5, asking can they can dry their clothes tomorrow morning instead.

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