Does power grid operator ERCOT purposely communicate in gibberish so we don’t understand?
By Dave Lieber
“We won’t be participating in your story.”
The author of this quotation is Leslie Sopko, the Texas power grid operator’s communications manager. She speaks on behalf of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, but not with me on this particular occasion.
Can’t say I blame her. If The Watchdog informs you that your public communications strategy is a disaster to match the cold-weather disaster you’re speaking about, you can defend yourself or walk away.
Take last week’s four-hour conservation crisis, in which we were warned on a mild spring day that we were, once again, near the danger zone. The ERCOT news conference, which I listened to, began with one explanation about a stalled cold-weather front and then eventually came around to generating plants being offline for maintenance.
It was mind-numbing listening to reporters trying to figure out how to report the news. Reporters would say, “So what you’re saying here is …”
Translating ERCOT jargon is like rolling a boulder uphill.
“The energy world is so insulated from the outside, and it’s highly technical and specialized,” explains Jennifer Selin, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri who began her career as an energy lawyer. “When you start talking to people who do what you do and have a lot of expertise in the area, you tend to forget that not everyone understands. It is not an intentional thing.”
With two months of hindsight, The Watchdog looked back at ERCOT’s initial tweets about the February crisis, and they read like a secret code.
The most important one, declaring the top-level emergency, came in at 1:25 a.m. on Feb. 16:
ERCOT “has declared an EEA 3. Energy conservation is critical. …”
Also under “Important Notes,” the report states that “ERCOT cannot disclose the unit-specific outage causes because they are Protected Information.” (Love the way they capitalize Protected Information.)
OK, toss that report. Let’s try ERCOT’s monthly operations report for January. Surely, that will have something that can be translated from ERCOT jargon.
Thumbing through it, I see a jargon party: interconnection queue capacity, maximum net system hourly values, mid-term load forecasts, hour-ahead mean absolute errors, effective resource hours and block load transfers.
This reminds me of modern art in a museum. Picture a big dot on a canvas. You know it’s important. You know the painting is worth millions of dollars. You just don’t know why.
If you like acronyms, here’s a basketful in the same monthly report: TPE, CSA, DAM, DC/BLT, GIS, COP/HSL, STWPF, MAE, IRR, RUC, SCED.
Since ERCOT declined participation in this story, I wish we could decline participation in ERCOT’s near-monopoly of the grid for most of Texas. The national grids look better than the, uh, TGOWCC.