As temperatures across Texas this week soar to unusually warm levels for the time of year, citizens are being urged to use less energy on basic things like cooking and washing clothes in order to free up the power grid of the state struggling to get enough electricity to cope with the high temperatures.
The move brings back memories for many Texans of the winter cold snap that paralyzed much of the state’s electricity infrastructure, and raises fears that Texas – and other US states – are unwilling to cope with the extreme weather events that accompanied the global climate crisis come along.
The agency that runs the Texas power grid has asked Texans to set thermostats to 78F (25.5C) or higher, turn off lights and pool pumps, and avoid using large appliances such as ovens, washers and dryers.
This is the second time the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot) has issued such a conservation call since February’s winter storms left more than 4.8 million homes and businesses without power for days. The crisis has been blamed for more than 100 deaths and $ 130 billion in costs.
In addition to the plant outages, demand is high this week as cities across Texas anticipate temperatures in the 1990s. The state broke its June electricity demand record on Monday.
Summer hasn’t even officially started yet, and the early calls for nature conservation raise questions about what will happen in the months and years to come if global temperatures continue to rise.
“We are heading for a future climate where there are likely to be more extreme droughts and stronger hurricanes that put stress on the system itself,” said Dan Cohan, professor of civil engineering at Rice University. “This week we’ve seen that the Texas power grid has barely prepared for the hot weather in June, but nowhere near how hot it can get in July and August.”
Cohan says Ercot hasn’t made it clear which coal and gas power plants have failed and are adding strain to the grid, and why – it could be maintenance or repairs after the knockout blows in February, or on potential summer demand to prepare.
“Ercot really left us in the dark about which coal and gas power plants went down and why,” he said. “They gave belated confirmation that more than twice as many power plants have failed as expected, but no real clarity as to why this is happening. Many of us have to guess. “
The grid is only prepared for one crisis at a time, but the tissues often overlap – for example when it is very hot, the wind often does not blow as usual or the demand increases while power plants are offline.
“We need to be prepared for this, not just because of chance, but because these challenges can be correlated,” Cohan said. “In extreme weather events, supply and demand can often be stretched at the same time.”
Solar production in Texas is growing fast, and that saved the lights this week.
“We could be in the middle of a two-year growth spurt faster than any state has ever seen in solar production,” Cohan said. “We have more than five times as much sun as we did a few years ago, and that made the difference that we had afternoons today when we were called on to protect nature. There would probably have been blackouts if we didn’t have solar parks online. “
Still, much more needs to be done: the grid needs to be weatherproofed, transmission from windy and sunny areas needs to be extended to fast-growing cities, and the Texas grid needs to be integrated into other states, he says.
During this year’s Texas legislature, lawmakers passed a series of reforms designed to protect the state from power outages. At a signing ceremony last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that “everything had to be done to fix the Texas power grid.”
Kyri Baker, a building systems engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies power grids, said better systems were needed to get consumers to use less energy, known as demand response.
“It’s 2021 and we’re asking for demand response on Twitter,” she says. “We can’t just ask people not to use their oven because there is no guarantee that people will participate.”
Many people do not know which devices in their home use the most electricity; they are usually not lights, but heating and cooling systems and water heaters. She says paying people to install smart meters and smart thermostats would go a long way in enabling utilities to have granular blackouts rather than shutting down entire parts of a city.
She adds that Texas’s connection with other states seems like a simple solution, but is not a panacea: if there are major heat waves that increase demand, they hit other states as well. “It’s more complicated than just laying more power lines.”