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For Lubbock residents, conserving energy to prevent mass outages is a new thing to navigate

By Jayme Lozano, The Texas Tribune

For Lubbock residents, conserving energy to prevent mass outages is a new thing to navigate” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LUBBOCK — It used to be that when residents in this West Texas hub conserved energy, it was largely because they wanted to avoid high energy bills. Now they’re doing it because last May, most electricity customers here were moved from a city-owned power grid to the state’s main power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — which has twice asked Texans to conserve power this week.

Being asked to lower individual consumption to prevent large-scale rolling blackouts is a new experience for Lubbock residents.

Like the rest of the state, Lubbock this week has been hit with a heat wave. Temperatures reached over 100 degrees for several days before hitting 105 degrees Tuesday, the city’s third hottest day of the year so far.

Amid the searing temperatures across the state this week, ERCOT sent out two conservation notices asking Texans to voluntarily turn their thermostats to 78 degrees and to avoid using large appliances so electricity usage didn’t exceed supply. Some people here took those notices seriously.

[Still wary of the electric grid’s reliability, many Texans complied with ERCOT’s requests to conserve power this week]

“Anytime I’ve ever heard that there’s going to be issues or we’re having extreme weather, I’ve always been proactive and start unplugging things,” said Jacinda Willingham, a longtime Lubbock resident. “I decided I was going to try to start raising the temperature on my thermostat to see if I could survive and have some levels of comfort.”

Willingham is 70 years old, works from home and now keeps the temperature in her home at 75 degrees. When she sees a day is forecast to be over 100 degrees, she’ll wake up early to do all her housework and cooking for the day before temperatures get too high. She does most of her work in a single office, which happens to be the hottest room of her house, and tries to get her work done early before she puts her computer in rest mode when temperatures rise, then will go back to it as she needs.

Even with her living adjustments, Willingham is still worried about what could happen if Lubbock is now caught in rolling blackouts.

A Lubbock Power & Light electrical substation on July 14, 2022.
A Lubbock Power & Light electrical substation on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Credit: Trace Thomas for The Texas Tribune

“ERCOT said we don’t have to have [rolling blackouts], but that freaked me out because I didn’t even know we were maybe going to have to,” Willingham said.

Power grids must keep supply and demand in balance at all times. When Texas’ main grid falls below its safety margin of excess supply, the grid operator starts taking additional precautions to avoid blackouts. The first precaution is to ask the public to voluntarily cut back electricity usage.

Lubbock’s decision to join ERCOT’s grid came several years before the 2021 winter storm that caused both a dramatic drop in electricity supply and increase in power demand from customers. To prevent a catastrophic grid failure that could have lasted months, ERCOT started what were supposed to be rolling blackouts that ended up lasting days for millions of Texans. Lubbock was able to largely avoid that experience because it hadn’t yet joined ERCOT, but some residents quickly had doubts as to whether joining the grid was still a good idea.

“This had been a process that had been evaluated for years,” said Lubbock City Council member Christy Martinez-Garcia. “But I believe the public was not really prepared.”

Last June, Lubbock Power & Light transitioned 70% of its customers to ERCOT’s market. The remaining 30% will join next year. One reason city officials decided years ago to join the main power grid was so residents could have more options for their electricity provider.

Drew Landry, a Lubbock resident and professor at South Plains College, on July 14, 2022.
Drew Landry, a Lubbock resident and professor at South Plains College, on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Credit: Trace Thomas for The Texas Tribune

“It was a good sell that we’d have competition, because that was the whole point of ERCOT, was to bring more competition to consumers,” said Drew Landry, a Lubbock resident and professor at South Plains College. “That’s all fine and good, but when the grid collapsed last February, we saw all these companies were going to up their rates, so the thought was, ‘Is this what we’re getting into?’”

Martinez-Garcia said it would be beneficial to have public meetings to help show residents how to adjust to extreme weather, regardless of how stable the grid is.

“With this major heat wave that we’re having across the state, I think that whether we’re part of ERCOT or [Lubbock Power & Light], I feel like we would have had to be prepared for this,” Martinez-Garcia said.

She said people can do more beyond turning up their thermostat, including replacing air filters, closing blinds and curtains, and avoiding using laundry appliances and ovens whenever possible.

“We’ve got to create some smart energy habits. I think that’s going to help us reduce and improve efficiency,” Martinez-Garcia said.

Texans and businesses reduced their energy use by 500 megawatts and helped ERCOT meet record power demand, according to a statement from ERCOT on Monday, when Texans were asked to conserve electricity. ERCOT also stated the call for conservation was a result of high demand, low wind, forced thermal outages and cloud cover in West Texas that reduced solar generation.

While Gov. Greg Abbott has reassured Texans that the grid has been fixed, experts disagree and the requests for conservation still cause doubts about its stability — and stoke fears of more outages.

“I’m about as skeptical as ever when it comes to something like that,” Landry said. “Every time we get another advisory, it’s like what’s the problem here? I thought they fixed the grid because Governor Abbott said that several times.”

Landry added, “I guess that’s what you have to say. You have to try to reassure everybody. But it turns out that maybe there’s some more things you could be doing. When you look at where things have failed, how do we know that everything’s on the up and up?”

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