It’s really hot in Texas right now. Many parts of the state are hotter than they’ve ever been at this time of year. In the coastal city of Corpus Christi, the heat index, a combined measure of heat and humidity, reached a shocking 125 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 52 Celsius.
That’s because a weather system called a heat dome is parked over Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Mexico. People are struggling, and one person may have died from the baking temperatures. And, there’s a lot of worry about the Texas electric grid.
That heat dome could stay in place until early July. It’s forecast to expand to Arkansas, Louisiana and Kansas. As people turn up their air-conditioners to stay cool, will the grids hold?
Today, I want to explain to you why electric grids are an enormous concern during extreme heat waves and what policymakers can do about it.
Texas is special in one important way.
The electric grid in Texas is more vulnerable to extreme weather than most. That’s because Texas has very few connections to any grid outside the state, so it’s harder for it to import energy from other states when things get desperate.
There’s some history behind this, as Austin’s NPR station explained. But basically it’s because Texas power companies and policymakers wanted to avoid federal regulation.
As my colleagues Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer explained recently, Texas could have suffered fewer power failures in 2021 if its grid had been connected to other states.
Building more transmission lines could also build more resilience internally, by connecting new power plants, like wind farms in the west, to areas where there is large demand, like Houston.
“Texas is expanding the grid inside the state faster than anywhere else in the United States, but it’s still not fast enough,” Michael E. Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas, said.
But this isn’t just about Texas.
Grid operators are struggling around the world.
Mexico has issued a rare alert warning that its grid may not be able to handle the increase in demand. Mexican news outlets reported blackouts in 12 states. China has stocked up on a record amount of coal to prepare for this summer’s heat. Britain also resorted to coal to generate additional power.
Some leaders in Texas want to use more fossil fuels, in their case natural gas, to meet demand, too. In general, though, the Texas energy grid is getting cleaner.
That’s a bitter irony: Using more fossil fuels, which cause climate change, to cope with extreme heat. The trajectory of global warming won’t change if governments keep reacting to extreme weather events by using more oil, gas and coal.
Air-conditioners, as my colleague Somini Sengupta explained in an earlier newsletter, are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. There are other ways, like building better, to beat the heat.
High demand isn’t the full story.
Many kinds of machinery don’t work as well under extreme heat. Power plants, transmission lines and even the air-conditioners in our homes work less effectively when it’s hot out, Webber told me.
“This increases demand, or strain on the grid. At the same time, the grid is less able to keep up with it,” he said. “So it’s like a double or triple whammy.”
During the heat wave in Texas, he said, some nuclear, coal or gas plants went offline, even though the general collapse that happened during a deadly winter storm in 2021 didn’t repeat itself.
“But it’s pretty tough; it’s on edge,” he said.
The policy solutions.
It would really help if Texas were able to make buildings more energy efficient. It would save power and make homes more comfortable if the power goes out. But leaders in Texas have resisted passing any legislation of the sort.
A rare bill on energy conservation to pass the Texas Legislature was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott as part of an effort to force lawmakers to cut property taxes. The bill would have reformed codes to make new buildings more energy efficient.
There is an ideological divide in the state between Republicans, who want to build more fossil fuel power plants, and Democrats, who want to build more renewables.
“It does seem like it’s become partisan,” Webber told me. “But the pain is felt in a comprehensive way.”
Texas has never had a big summer blackout, but that could soon change, Doug Lewin, a Texas energy expert, wrote in his newsletter. Without policies to save energy, the Texas electricity operator can only beg people to conserve energy.
“There’s plenty of energy available, except for a few hours of the day in the summertime,” Lewin wrote. “But summer is all about managing that peak.”
Essential news from The Times
Rebuilding global finance: Representatives from about 80 countries are gathering in Paris to talk about overhauling a system that many say is ill suited to the era of climate change.
A $10.3 billion settlement: 3M, the chemical and manufacturing giant, reached a deal with U.S. cities over their claims that it contaminated their water with so-called forever chemicals.
E-bike battery fires: Electric bike batteries were the source of over 100 fires in New York City this year, some of them deadly. Officials are trying to make the batteries safer.
Sea lion deaths: Hundreds of the animals are dying along California’s coast. Rescuers believe the culprit is a toxin that occurs naturally but can be made more harmful by human activity.
California’s trillion-gallon question: Extreme weather is threatening dams in the state, partly because designers didn’t account for climate change. What if they fail?
Parched Iran: Lawmakers are warning that one province will run out of water within three months. The shortage is inflaming tensions with the country’s neighbors.
Endangered species protections: The Biden administration moved to restore measures under the Endangered Species Act that President Donald J. Trump had removed.
Before you go: Helping fish, helping people
For years, scientists and policymakers have debated whether marine-protected areas work as intended to sustain fish populations and whether they help or harm the people who live nearby. Now, a new study shows that protecting marine areas from overfishing can have significant benefits for coastal communities.
Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.