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Kristen Kougias has done her part to help Texas avoid blackouts.
The Fort Worth mother of five has concealed her home’s thermostat in a clear plastic box to keep her children from cranking up the air conditioner — especially during peak times when the state’s main power grid operator has requested Texans keep energy use low.
“Our boys upstairs would turn the thermostat down to 67 if they had a chance,” Kougias said. “In some ways that's us trying to police our kids to conserve energy as well.”
Kougias is one of an unknown number of Texans who have this summer heeded the Electric Reliability Council of Texas request to conserve power to dodge power-supply meltdowns when electricity production is struggling to keep up with high demand, driven by intense heat.
While the lights have stayed on, she is becoming skeptical of the appeals.
“I don't feel like ERCOT is reliable,” she said, adding that she doesn’t believe Texas politicians have done enough to protect the state from a repeat of the 2021 energy crisis during Winter Storm Uri.
With back-to-back energy conservation requests — eight in the past month — some energy and psychology experts warn Texans like Kougias might shrug off the agency’s energy reduction tips like raising thermostats by a couple degrees and turning off lights, if not given intel as to how they are helping or if requests work.
“If you're wanting people to change behavior, you need to reward it,” said Tanya Zielinski, a Grapevine-based psychiatrist and former assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “If the person can't say, I changed my thermostat and something came as a result of that then they're kind of left with an emptiness.”
To reduce power use in homes, ERCOT asks residents voluntarily to postpone tasks that require power like doing laundry or using the dishwasher until after the tense period is over, and adjust thermostats. If conservation requests and other back-up tools are not enough, ERCOT will initiate emergency operations to bring all remaining generation to the grid and prevent power outages.
ERCOT also pays large industrial and commercial power users to be available to scale back their power use if needed.
Pablo Vegas, the CEO and president of ERCOT recognized at a public meeting on Thursday that the state’s grid operator has requested significant efforts from Texans through multiple requests to conserve due to the grid approaching very tight operational conditions.
Vegas reassured residents that their response to these calls “has been nothing short of tremendous” and that residents' power-saving efforts have played a crucial role in navigating through challenging operational phases without the need for emergency measures.
Following Uri, when the state’s electric grid operator couldn’t get enough power supply, leaving millions without access to electricity, ERCOT committed to frequent and early communication. The agency uses an alert system where they notify of potential high-demand periods and conservation appeals. The goal is to provide greater transparency to customers and raise awareness, according to their website.
“ERCOT has been operating more conservatively the past couple of years, post-[winter storm] Uri,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist who focuses on energy at the University of Texas at Austin, pointing to the operator’s messaging and forecasting of energy demand.
Rhodes said the conservation warnings seem to be working because the lights have stayed on, but that the agency does run the risk of being "the boy who cried wolf" issuing multiple warnings.
Marissa Riolo is one Texan who has seen enough, and this week said she will no longer follow ERCOT’s warnings.
“I am absolutely disgusted with the amount of requests issued this summer,” said Riolo, a Montgomery resident.
Complicating matters for Riolo is local power outages. Her family, who live about 60 miles northeast of Houston, have endured outages after conserving energy for up to 48 hours. She’s had to empty her produce and meat from her refrigerator due to power outages twice in the past three months.
Riolo said she’s been frustrated by what she calls a lack of transparency around the power grid’s status. ERCOT has not had to call for outages this summer.
“I have zero faith in ERCOT being able to effectively run our power grid and I don't think they've done anything to prove me wrong,” she said.
ERCOT does not track usage data by customer class or by individual meters, said Ellie Breed, a spokesperson for the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates electricity in the state. But in past calls for conservation, ERCOT said it has seen a statewide dip of approximately 500 megawatts reduction in demand on the grid — which can power about 100,000 homes during periods of peak demand.
Larry Jones, corporate communications manager at the utility provider American Electric Power Texas, said residents need to “be aware and responsive” to state's grid operator conservation requests because it’s helped the system avoid a worst-case scenario — people without power amid triple-digit temperatures.
AEP Texas along with major utility companies like Oncor Electric Delivery, and CenterPoint Energy said they couldn’t say how much energy use drops during conservation appeals and who leads the dip, residential or commercial users.
Zielinski said that if ERCOT wants to motivate Texans to conserve during critical times with high demand, they must lay out information about the impact people have when they conserve.
“[ERCOT] would want to present some sort of straightforward outcome. They could basically say ‘were you one of the people who turned your thermostat up one degree higher than usual today? Here's what that did,” Zielinski said.
Emily Foxhall contributed to this story.
Disclosure: CenterPoint Energy, Oncor, University of Texas at Austin and UT Southwestern Medical Center have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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