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'Power emergency': Texas environmental enforcement relaxes during extreme power demand

The power grid supply may impact your air quality as grid managers can request environmental enforcement discretion at a certain time. How often does it happen?

AUSTIN, Texas — Power grid managers in Texas can ask environmental regulators to relax enforcement during extreme energy demand.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regulates air quality in the State. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages power for most of the State.

Southwest Power Pool (SPP) is a multi-state energy market and covers much of the Texas Panhandle and Northeast Texas. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) manages part of East Texas.

The KVUE Defenders found TCEQ gave enforcement discretion five times after the deadly February 2021 winter storm, known as Winter Storm Uri.

That storm knocked out power for days across Texas, mostly in the ERCOT region. Hundreds died as temperatures remained in the single digits.

TCEQ relaxed enforcement for ERCOT and MISO during that storm.

Discretion was given again for ERCOT June 15-18.

“The ERCOT Region is expecting high load, and ERCOT anticipates significant high load for today’s afternoon peak through Friday due to continued high temperatures. These conditions make it more likely that the ERCOT Region may experience a power emergency,” the ERCOT market notice showed.

This year, TCEQ allowed power generators to push past regulations four times in order to keep the power grid safe.

On Feb. 2, 2022, at 6 p.m., ERCOT notified power generators that TCEQ approved enforcement discretion showing “below freezing temps” would put a strain on the grid. That discretion lasted until noon Feb 5.

Then, on Feb. 23, ERCOT notified generators again that, starting midnight, TCEQ would use enforcement discretion due to “tight grid conditions.”

ERCOT updated generators around noon on Feb. 25, that the discretion was over.

The next round of enforcement discretion started at noon July 8.

“To ensure all possible generation is available to serve system demand, ERCOT has requested that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) exercise its enforcement discretion with respect to generator exceedances of TCEQ air permit limitations. TCEQ has communicated to ERCOT that it will use its enforcement discretion in evaluating generation facility exceedances of emission and operational permit limits to maximize generation availability during this period of concern,” ERCOT’S July 7 notice showed.

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The period of concern lasted until 5:21 p.m. July 14.

Then, TCEQ approved another request for discretion July 18, from noon to 8:26 p.m. 

We emailed TCEQ, asking if they used the enforcement discretion. 

“Yes, during periods of extreme temperatures resulting in power emergencies, TCEQ has approved ERCOT’s requests for enforcement discretion for power generators in its system,” Laura L. Lopez, TCEQ media and community relations manager, wrote.

Lopez said the July discretions were issued, “as a precautionary measure, due to extremely high temperatures across Texas, to ensure that generation was available to serve system demand.”

ERCOT online records show a three-year history. The KVUE Defenders checked with both SPP and MISO. A MISO spokesperson said they issued the same TCEQ notice after the February 2021 winter storm and after Hurricanes Laura (2020) and Ida (2021). SPP has not responded.

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