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Houston expert looks at wholesale pricing trends occurring this summer

PJ Popovic of Houston-based Rhythm Energy looks back on summer heatwave trends. Photo via Shutterstock

This summer’s heatwave had a lot of Texans feeling uncomfortable, and it was not just the sweltering triple-digit temperatures, and even higher heat indexes, that had us sweating. With much of the state hitting over 100 degrees for weeks, air conditioners were working overtime to keep homes and businesses cool. That added load, coupled with general demand growth, put a heavy burden on the Texas power grid — and that puts the state in a precarious position.

We all remember Uri in February 2021, when an inch-thick coat of ice hampered power companies' ability to generate power, leading to widespread and lasting power outages across the state. The recent heat wave, however, was different. This past summer, the concern for Texas and ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) was not whether generation would fail, but whether generation capacity could keep pace with peak demand. And what would be the wholesale electricity price to ensure that it did.

The generation mix

As robust as our electricity grid is, on any given day the balance between power supply and demand remains fairly tenuous. In its summer Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy, ERCOT projected its power-generation capacity at 97,000 MW. However, that daily capacity number can be misleading.

As Texas’ generation mix leans to a greater degree toward renewable power and we retire more coal and natural gas fired generation plants, our generation output becomes less predictable. Operators can practically flip a switch to turn on fossil fuel generation plants and quickly dispatch its power. Renewable generation, on the other hand, is intermittent and its output by no means guaranteed. While the state’s current combined wind and solar generation can potentially deliver up to 30,000 megawatts, if the right weather conditions are not there, neither is the power.

Meanwhile, the demand for power in Texas has increased dramatically. In recent years, we have seen significant population growth, electrification as well as new business expansion throughout the state. Some of the businesses moving here draw huge loads of power from the grid — think about the companies mining digital currency or Elon Musk’s SpaceX facilities in Central Texas, just to name a few. A considerable demand curve increase occurring simultaneously with the move to more renewable generation challenges the delicate balance of the grid.

Trends and lessons learned from the summer’s wholesale electricity pricing

ERCOT manages the flow of electricity across the state of Texas. It also oversees the wholesale bulk power market whereby generators are paid primarily for the electricity they supply to the grid. To incentivize the development of future generating capacity, ERCOT employs scarcity pricing — that means that commodity prices escalate dramatically as supply becomes constrained.

This summer, ERCOT faced unprecedented demand with daily electricity usage frequently nearing generation capacity limits. Consequently, electricity prices were notably volatile, often skyrocketing exponentially.

ERCOT employs a complex series of pricing mechanisms to establish its real-time price for each megawatt. A deep dive analysis (INSERT LINK) found that the Locational Margin Prices, or LMP, were significantly higher than previous years, even when reserve generation capacities were robust and fuel prices were similar to or lower than prior years.

So, what contributed to the higher than usual prices? Certainly, changes to ERCOT operations, market design tweaks, and transmission constraints contributed, but market prices were most driven by generators’ offer pricing curves.

Now, more than four months removed from the start of the heat wave in June, we can see how different various technologies priced their offerings. The data suggests that a segment of resources, notably battery storage, set their offer prices near or at the system-wide offer price cap. Given the anticipated rise of batteries as the primary dispatchable resource within the grid in coming years, this pricing behavior warrants closer scrutiny.

Offer pricing curves appear to have created a semblance of shortage pricing, evident in the heightened LMPs, even when reserve capacities were not especially scarce. This would suggest that a significant portion of the dispatchable capacity integrated into ERCOT was priced at levels typically seen only in grid emergency conditions

Key questions

Why are the recently added dispatchable resources garnering such high offer prices? Are there operational hurdles in integrating and dispatching batteries, challenges in market design, inherent limitations of batteries on the grid, or other factors contributing to these high offer prices from battery resources? Given that batteries are poised to play a central role in the transition to renewable energy sources, answering these questions will be key.

The current pricing trends in the ERCOT market, if sustained, could lead to increased electricity rates and/or increased price volatility for end-users, underscoring the importance of monitoring and addressing these market dynamics.

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PJ Popovic is the CEO of Houston-based Rhythm Energy.

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A View From HETI

The plant, expected to go online later this year, will process brine produced from lithium-containing waste-magnesium salts. Photo via ibatterymetals.com

Houston-based International Battery Metals, whose technology offers an eco-friendly way to extract lithium compounds from brine, is installing what it’s billing as the world’s first commercial modular direct-lithium extraction plant.

The mobile facility is located at US Magnesium’s operations outside Salt Lake City. The plant, expected to go online later this year, will process brine produced from lithium-containing waste-magnesium salts. The resulting lithium chloride product will provide feedstock for high-purity lithium carbonate generated by US Magnesium.

Under its agreement with US Magnesium, International Battery Metals (IBAT) will receive royalties on lithium sales, as well as payments for equipment operations based on lithium prices and performance.

IBAT says its patented technology is the only system that delivers a 97 percent extraction rate for lithium chloride from brine water, with up to 98 percent of water recycled and with minimal use of chemicals.

“Commercial operations will serve growing lithium demand from automakers for electric vehicle batteries, as well as energy storage batteries to support growing electricity demand and to balance the grid from increased renewable energy integration,” IBAT says in a news release.

Initially, the less than three-acre plant will annually produce 5,000 metric tons of lithium chloride. The modular plant was fabricated in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“Our commercial operations with US Mag will advance a productive lithium extraction operation,” says Garry Flowers, CEO of IBAT. “Given current lithium demand, supply dependence on China, and permitting challenges, our expected commercial operations are coming at an ideal time to produce lithium at scale in the U.S.”

IBAT says the technology has been validated by independent reviewers and has been tested in Texas, California, Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma, as well as Argentina, Canada, Chile, and Germany.

IBAT says its modular concept positions the company to be a key supplier for rising U.S. lithium demand, providing an alternative to China and other global suppliers.

John Burba, founder, CTO and director of IBAT, says the modular extraction technology “will be the basis of future lithium extraction from brine resources around the world.”

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