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Cold pushes Texas power use to Jan record; conservation urged

Jan 7 (Reuters) - Below-freezing temperatures across Texas pushed power use to a January record on Monday evening, according to preliminary data from the state's power grid operator.

Electric demand reached 56,031 megawatts in the hour ending at 10 p.m. CT (1600 GMT) on Monday, surpassing the 55,878 MW record set Jan. 8, 2010, according to the website for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state's primary grid.

Earlier Monday, the state narrowly averted rolling outages by taking emergency steps to meet rising demand for heating.

ERCOT extended a call for consumers to conserve electric use through Tuesday when demand is forecast to peak at 57,564 MW, an amount that could break the region's all-time winter record set in 2011.

Monday's emergency lasted less than three hours, but was reminiscent of February 2011 when ERCOT was forced to implement rolling outages for several hours after dozens of power plants were knocked offline or were unable to start due to frigid weather and strong winds across the state.

One of the state's largest power plants, Luminant's Comanche Peak 1 nuclear reactor, is operating at 72 percent of capacity for a second day.

Monday's events are sure to complicate the debate about the need for more generation in Texas, which has divided the Public Utility Commission and raised concern among state lawmakers.

Electric supplies on Monday tightened after more than 3,700 megawatts of generation was forced to shut overnight Sunday and early Monday, Dan Woodfin, ERCOT's director of system operations, told reporters. The forced outages came on top of nearly 10,000 MW of generation that was already shut for the season or for planned maintenance, he said.

Woodfin said about 1,800 MW of the 3,700 MW of the forced outages were weather-related, including two large power plants in north central Texas that he declined to name.

Monday's power demand surpassed the grid agency's winter forecast of less than 50,000 MW under normal weather conditions.

One megawatt can power about 500 homes in mild weather and about 200 homes during high-demand summer months, ERCOT said.

Power producers in Texas include Luminant, a unit of privately held Energy Future Holdings, NRG Energy , Calpine Corp, NextEra Energy and Exelon Corp.