Texas is sweating out a massive heat wave unusually early in the year – and sweating potential blackouts as all those air conditioning units put extra strain on the state’s infamously fragile grid. Already, before the hottest months of the year have even hit, Texans have annihilated previous records for all-time high electricity demand, surpassing 75 gigawatts in a single day.
These are exactly the kinds of conditions that experts warned us about earlier this summer when they told Texans to expect soaring temperatures, sky-high electricity demand, and an overwhelmed grid. In the past, Texas’s grid has collapsed under extreme weather conditions, with fatal consequences. During a devastating cold snap in February 2021, a massive grid failure cut power to more than 4.5 million homes, leaving most without a heat source amidst life-threatening cold temperatures. “This failure has resulted in at least 57 deaths across 25 Texas counties and over $195 billion in property damage, bringing attention to the energy system crisis and its potential causes,” says the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
The devastating failure was the result of mismanagement, negligence, and the state of Texas’ unusual approach to running its energy grid. As an energy powerhouse, Texas is in a unique position that enables it to largely isolate its grid from the rest of the country, meaning that it is not subject to outside regulation. As such, the state has allowed for a largely market-driven, deregulated grid, “handing control of the state’s entire electricity delivery system to a market-based patchwork of private generators, transmission companies and energy retailers” as the New York Times reported last year. The increased competition for low energy prices disincentivized spending on weather-proofing energy infrastructure and left a lot of room for confusion. “Deregulation meant that critical rules of the road for power were set not by law, but rather by a dizzying array of energy competitors,” the Times explains.
Already, the body that oversees the Texas grid is repeating some of the same mistakes that led to last year’s tragedy. “Texas’ grid operator told a power plant to delay repairs ahead of a May heat wave. It was among six that crashed,” the Texas Tribune reported this week. As temperatures have continued to soar, and energy demand has continued to break records, however, the Texas grid has held up amazingly well. What variable is to thank for keeping the strained grid operating smoothly? Renewables.
“Wind and solar power are ‘bailing out’ Texas amid record heat and energy demand,” read a recent CNN headline. Strong performance and high production rates from both wind and solar have been critical to meeting demand at peak hours. When demand peaked last Sunday, wind and solar contributed 26 gigawatts of energy to the grid, or nearly 40% of the total energy required. “Texas is, by rhetoric, anti-renewables. But frankly, renewables are bailing us out,” Michael Webber, an energy expert at the University of Texas was quoted by CNN. “They’re rocking. That really spares us a lot of heartaches and a lot of money.”
This revolution is a huge victory for renewable advocates in Texas. It also smacks of irony, as many pro-oil news outlets and pundits were quick to (incorrectly) blame renewable energy for last year’s grid failure. Despite the staunch support for fossil fuels in Texas, however, renewables have been steadily gaining ground in the Lone Star State, which has lots of wide open spaces, particularly well suited to wind and solar farms, and a whole lot of energy industry infrastructure already in place. Renewable energy’s reliability during the summer heat is likely to keep fanning those flames, and hopefully even win over some heartland hearts, as the sector continues to grow.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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