AUSTIN, Texas – On Monday, as rising temperatures drove Texas power demand to a June record, state regulators urged citizens to use less electricity or face a repeat of February’s fatal outages, which saw 69 percent of Texans were without electricity and half without water.
Experts say Texas, which prides itself on its light regulatory rating, is paying its price. As climate change contributes to weather extremes in both summer and winter, the vulnerability of the state’s electricity system is becoming increasingly evident.
The result is “a system that cuts the corners and tries to have just enough power to get through – which is fine until a few things go wrong and we’re on the verge of blackouts again,” said Daniel Cohan, at Extraordinary Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University in Houston. He compared the situation in Texas to someone trying to save some money by going without insurance. “It’s really cheap until it isn’t,” said Dr. Cohan.
State lawmakers passed legislation last month to address some of the issues that led to the February disaster, but it may not be enough. The legal requirements have already been criticized as inadequate, the next weather situation is already here.
The new legislation calls for better weathering of the plants in order to avoid a repetition of the February debacle. But the schedule is less than urgent, critics say, and many of the same regulators who presided over the network’s demise are being asked to oversee the improvements. Even the legislature most responsible for passing the bill, State Representative Chris Paddie, said when the bill was signed, “There is more to be done.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the state’s power grid and known as ERCOT, on Monday urged people to conserve electricity, telling them to set thermostats to 78 degrees or higher, turn off lights, and stop using large ones Devices to avoid.
The state’s electricity demand on Monday, at 70 gigawatts, was uncomfortably close to what the companies were able to provide at the time – in large part because around 12 gigawatts of generation capacity were offline, including part of the state’s Comanche Peak nuclear power plant.
On Monday, the difference between energy consumed and generated was approaching the level that triggers mandatory emergency response.
At the beginning of the year the situation hadn’t looked so unsettled. North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which helps ensure grid reliability, anticipated above-average reserves in Texas this summer of 15.3 percent for the year, up from 12.9 percent in 2020.
But the agency warned in a report last month that “extreme weather can affect both generation and demand, creating energy shortages that lead to energy emergencies” for Ercot.
The problem is urgent, but not new. “Every summer everyone holds their breath to see if there are enough generations in Texas to keep the lights on,” said Bernard L. McNamee, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member and partner at McGuire Woods law firm.
Sometimes some electricity producers simply choose not to offer electricity on the market because doing so may not prove economically beneficial.
Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer at Fairewinds Energy Education, a nonprofit focusing on nuclear power, said the Comanche power plant suffered a transformer fire. But why other units were offline in mid-June is a mystery. Any seasonal repair or maintenance on power plants is usually done in April and May, Gundersen said. “You shouldn’t be serviced now.” Texas hasn’t done enough to reform its grid regulators, even after doing some house cleaning after the winter crisis, said Robert McCullough of McCullough Research, an energy research and consulting firm based in the Portland, Oregon system, “said McCullough, adding,” We basically see exactly the same system as four months ago. “
Worse, said Mr. McCullough, the system encourages abuse. In the case of emergency reports, the electricity producers can receive 300 times the price they receive if there is no emergency.
The Biden government has made upgrading the country’s energy infrastructure one of its priorities. Julie McNamara, Senior Energy Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “When we talk about infrastructure without considering how that infrastructure needs to cope with climatic conditions from now to the future, then we’re building something that isn’t does take a chance. “
The situation is life threatening. A recent study found that in hundreds of places around the world, an average of 37 percent of heat-related deaths in warm seasons now could be climate change-related. And the increasing frequency of power outages is making heat waves more deadly.
Emily Grubert, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said poor housing conditions – especially in deprived neighborhoods – are increasingly turning extreme weather events into life-saving affairs. “Blackouts are more dangerous in lower-income neighborhoods and often in minority neighborhoods because of the truly unequal access to decent housing,” she said. Houses in poor condition tend to be inefficient and expensive to cool.
Power outages were already a problem in Pueblo de Palmas, a colony outside the border town of McAllen, Texas. Abel Garcia, 40, who works in construction, wiped his forehead in front of a trailer he shares with his wife and 16-year-old daughter Tuesday afternoon and said he feared the coming summer. His trailer lost power at around 11 a.m. on Monday, just as sunlight began to penetrate the windows and turned off the air conditioning, which was already on.
Without electricity “All we can do is take a cold shower to lower your body temperature,” he said. “And wait.”
Although Texas is in the news, Ms. McNamara said, this isn’t just a Texas problem. Electricity systems across the country face increasing forest fires, floods, hurricanes, and other challenges as climate change exacerbates natural disasters of many kinds. “The past will not lead us to being equipped for where we are and where we are increasingly going,” she said. This week, a California heat wave prompted the state’s grid regulator to warn that people may be urged to conserve energy.
Many Texans, suspicious of the state’s shaky power grid, have started producing and storing their own electricity. Kevin Doffing, a Houston homeowner, suffered from the winter power outage and decided to buy a solar panel so his house would keep buzzing during the next blackout. “I just don’t see how we’re going to continue what we’ve done so far and expect different results,” he said.
At the time of the crisis last winter, EnergySage, which is helping people compare solar installers, found that registrations from Texas to its online service were up 392 percent for the week of February 15, compared to the rest of the month until then have risen. Although traffic has decreased somewhat, according to EnergySage, it remains higher than it was before the winter crisis.
The Texans were alarmed by the news that their unreliable power grid, which was unreliable in the cold, was ailing in the heat. “I definitely don’t want to see what happened in the winter storm again,” says Erik Jensen, who lives north of Austin. “That scared me.”
The renewed warning of failures made him “a little disappointed,” he said. “I was hoping they would have fixed the grid in the meantime.”
Edgar Sandoval contributed the coverage from Texas, Hiroko Tabuchi from New York City and Brad Plumer from Washington, DC