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How to Explain Utilities

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Grids are complicated—just ask Puerto Rico. Many customers don’t understand that it’s not about producing enough power, it’s about producing just enough power. Or, in other words: All energy that goes in must come out. However, Warren Lasher, planning director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), may have come up with the perfect metaphor to help the public understand just what utilities do.

In a recent interview with Mose Buchele of KUT, 90.5 FM, Lasher explained that the grid had a beat, sort of like a heart. The frequency, however, is 60 hertz and ERCOT has got to make sure it stays steady. He expanded on that idea, saying: “‘In the same way that John Bonham manages the beat of Led Zeppelin...It's a drummer; it's that beat that needs to be maintained."’

It’s clever and cute. But what’s not clever and cute is the reason ERCOT is giving interviews like this in the first place. Texas, and California for that matter, is expected to fall short this summer of meeting peak energy demand. The rest of the country, it should be noted, will meet their populations’ energy needs. 

What’s wrong in Texas? Well, there are a number of factors. On top of high temperatures (it’s been in the 100's each day this week in my dear El Paso), there’s been significant load growth over the last year in various Texan cities. Nowhere has that growth been more pronounced than in the capital, Austin. Once a funky little college town, Austin has led the nation in population growth for the past eight years. Drawn in by good weather and a booming tech-sector, people just can’t seem to get enough of  Texas’ 4th largest town, drawn in by good weather and a booming tech-sector. 

Compounding Texas’ situation, the 470-megawatt (MW) Gibbons Creek coal-fired plant shut down earlier this year. Although there are plans for new plants in the future, to this point that generation has not been replaced.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 5, 2019 11:12 am GMT

I do like the drumming metaphor. I'm often surprised how the energy systems of a region/country run is not part of what's taught in schools at any point in science classes. An understanding of the system provides a level of engagement and appreciation that would be valuable for all, IMO

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