The punishing heat dome that has settled over Texas is putting unprecedented strain on the state’s electricity system, leaving officials scrambling to keep the lights on and the air conditioners cranking.
But Texas is uniquely vulnerable to power failures because it cannot draw electricity from neighbors in a crisis. It is the only state in the contiguous United States disconnected from the national grid, a deliberate move to avoid federal regulation.
“Next week is going to be the real test,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “Just about every single air conditioner in those regions is going to want energy at the same time.”
State officials are increasingly turning to an unexpected technology: giant batteries.
These Mack truck-size systems, which can quickly spew stored electrons onto the grid when power plants sputter, played a crucial role in avoiding outages over the past week, as scorching temperatures shattered records across Texas. And they are renewing debate about the role of clean energy in stabilizing the Texas grid, as the batteries are ideal for harnessing wind and solar energy.
Power system operators across the country are watching closely to see how Texas manages this crisis. While the perilous combination of prolonged triple-digit temperatures and overstressed power plants and transmission lines is plaguing Texas at the moment, it could hit most any region at any time. Changes in the weather and the deteriorating condition of regional power grids make the entire nation increasingly vulnerable to outages for longer stretches of the year.
“Texas is experiencing what everyone in the country is going to be going through in some form or fashion in the years ahead,” said Aaron Zubaty, the CEO of Eolian, which owns and operates large energy storage projects. “All the systems are not necessarily designed for operating in these types of prolonged events at the edge of design and engineering specifications … These are the types of weather events that can cause weird things to occur that no one has ever thought about at all types of plants.”
The National Weather Service warned that “oppressive and persistent heat will become increasingly dangerous and potentially deadly” in much of Texas, and that many areas of the state “have already experienced a yearly record number of hours of dangerously high heat index reading.”
That scorching weather is expected to stretch into next week, with the service cautioning that the length of the heat wave threatens to make it particularly deadly. Cities across Texas are reporting the shattering of high temperature records. At the San Angelo airport, the thermometer hit 114 degrees by midweek, surpassing the record — set only a year ago — by three degrees.
The high temperatures are compounded by thick humidity, intensifying the impact and health risk. It keeps the heat trapped in buildings that might otherwise cool down overnight, leaving them still baking when the sun comes up in the morning and temperatures soar anew.
Across the border in Mexico, the situation appears even more dire. The country’s power grid is on the brink as temperatures soared well past 100 degrees in multiple regions. Several deaths have been reported, according to local news reports, which also relayed that people were sleeping out in the street in the town of Huetamo, where power outages persisted for days.
In Texas, the grid so far has held despite heat more extreme than many parts of the state have ever faced.
The outsize role battery storage is playing in keeping the power on is welcome news to clean energy companies, which have been fighting the fossil fuel lobby’s efforts to place blame for the state’s electricity woes on the increasing share of renewables in its energy mix.
Battery storage is a boon to wind and solar, as it allows them to capture and store the energy created at times when it may not be needed and then make it available to ratepayers at peak hours.
But amid this heat emergency, batteries have also proved useful in bailing out more traditional power plants.
When a large coal facility got knocked offline during peak hours this week amid the stress of the extreme heat, energy that was being stored in batteries elsewhere in Texas was quickly dispatched to carry the grid through the evening. The batteries were also crucial to keeping the power on when a nuclear plant hiccuped and went offline earlier in the week, said Doug Lewin, a Texas energy consultant.
The power grid quickly becomes vulnerable to outages when a plant is unexpectedly knocked offline. The batteries, much like small, fast-reacting gas generators, are able to backstop that electricity immediately. That kind of backup power was not available in Texas in 2021, when winter storm Uri caused multiple power plants to fail, leaving millions of Texans freezing in the dark for days in one of the largest blackouts in recent U.S. history. At least 246 people died during that storm.
Texas has since become a national leader in battery storage, with nearly a third of the nation’s capacity, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. Only California has more. Texas plans to nearly double the amount of battery storage on its grid within the next year, Lewin said.
The proliferation of such storage is likely to drive wind and solar development in the state even during a time the technologies are under siege in the Texas Capitol.
“A lot of this storage is coming online as kind of an insurance policy in case something breaks,” Rhodes said. “But once it is on the system, it can do more than just help us during emergencies. It can help support renewables.”
Wind and solar energy, Rhodes said, can be packed into the batteries when the sun is pounding and the wind is howling but demand for electricity is low, and then sold to ratepayers when they need it. The battery units are coming online at the same time Texas is vastly expanding its use of solar power, with the state on track this summer to surpass California in production of electricity from utility-scale solar farms.
“It is a particularly good thing to have on the Texas grid,” Rhodes said. “It lets us harness for energy that same sun that is overheating our buildings and driving so much demand for electricity to cool them down.”