It’s been a record hot May in parts of Texas, and the state is in for more of the same this week. On Friday, because of the heat, six power plants in Texas went offline, taking 2,900 Megawatts off the grid, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Texans were asked to curb their electricity usage in response, to avoid overloading the rest of the remaining power supply.
“We’re asking Texans to conserve power when they can by setting their thermostats to 78-degrees or above and avoiding the usage of large appliances (such as dishwashers, washers and dryers) during peak hours between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. through the weekend,” said ERCOT Interim CEO, Brad Jones, in Friday evening public statement.
But the heat that triggered the early season failures isn’t going away. On Monday, temperatures were forecast to hit highs of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 Celsius) in some parts of the state. And it’s going to stay hot through Friday, with triple digit temps projected in and around San Antonio, Fort Worth, and large swathes of West Texas. The highs are more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than historic averages, according to NOAA data.
With thermometer readings like these, Texas’ uniquely vulnerable electric grid could face more disruption, just as people need their air conditioners and fans to be working the most. An earlier heatwave from this month over Mother’s Day weekend led power plants to postpone planned outages to keep the grid going. But this weekend proved that those precautions won’t always be enough, the grid still has big limits.
What’s going on with Texas’ energy grid?
Texas is the only state with its own, isolated power grid. That means when extreme weather or other circumstances take out in-state production, Texas can’t easily borrow from a neighbor as other state’s can. The Texas electricity market is also “energy-only,” meaning producers aren’t incentivized to produce back-up power. And even on a good day, the grid is bordering on overtaxed, with some of the slimmest margins between power use and availability in the country.
Friday was the third time that ERCOT asked households and businesses to limit how much electricity they were using since 2021’s catastrophic winter statewide power failures which killed up to 700 people. The first limit request was in April of 2021, after several power plants went offline for maintenance and usage unexpectedly rose. The second was a couple of months later in June when a few other power plants shut off during a heatwave.
That same month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation making two minor reforms to ERCOT. One of the laws mandated some weatherization for power generators and transmission lines, and the other made changes to ERCOT’s board. After he signed those two bills, Abbott declared, “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
Yet the June changes hardly scratched the surface of the widespread infrastructure improvements experts say the state needs for its electric grid to meet the needs of Texas under climate change. Republican lawmakers in the state also stymied further legislation which would have required more backup power generation, according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle. And clearly, this Friday’s power plant failures and rationing notice demonstrate that Abbott wasn’t quite right.
Why did the power plants fail?
ERCOT didn’t disclose which power plants had shut down on Friday, nor what exactly caused the failures. (Tip: it wasn’t the fault of green energy, as Abbott would once-upon-a-time have you believe. Solar performance stayed high at 73% of capacity.) But it was likely because of the heat. The link between high temperatures and power grid stability is well-established and two-fold.
For one, when it’s hot, energy demand shoots up as people lean on air conditioning and fans to stay cool. Then, heat makes things go haywire. Electricity generation and transport becomes less efficient, and if they get too hot, infrastructure like transformers can spazz out and shut down.
What happens next?
Just a few hours before the ERCOT announcement of power plant failures went out, Abbott sought to reassure Texans about the stability of the grid. He tweeted out a photo of him with utility company execs and the statement that, “we continue to work closely to ensure Texas’ power grid remains reliable & meets the needs of Texans.”
Yet, another Republican Texas lawmaker took a different approach. “This weekend’s energy conservation warning is another sign that we must have greater reliability,” Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick said in a statement. He called last June’s laws a first step, and added “work remains to be done.”
Which is undoubtedly true. Human-caused climate change will likely continue to bring both increasingly severe and frequent heat waves. Plus, climate change may have counterintuitively had a hand in 2021’s extreme cold in Texas too, by contributing to the breakdown standard, seasonal air currents. We’re altering the planet’s basic cycles, and if we want to keep our AC running, we better be altering our electric grids to keep up.
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