Texas’ precarious power grid reveals a nasty feedback loop

Another extreme weather event, another trial for the infamous Texas power grid. As temperatures rose above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, residents turned on their air conditioners, forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which manages the state’s grid, to ask customers to limit their energy use, lest the system crash.

And what a unique network it is. The United States actually has three distinct grids: the west and east roughly bisect the country. But Texas broke away from all that, choosing to run its own operations to avoid regulation. This means that electricity suppliers do not face penalties for not delivering electricity, as they do in regulated states. And because it’s not intricately connected to its neighbors’ energy grids, Texas can’t import much power from elsewhere when demand spikes, such as during this heat wave or cold snap. That isolationist attitude left it unprepared to withstand extreme climate change.

“Texas is once again in a unique position where they’ve essentially isolated themselves from the rest of the grid,” says Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School.

This has caught the country in an increasingly nasty feedback loop: as summers are hot, people have to use more air conditioning to avoid discomfort and heat. But that requires more energy, resulting in higher emissions that further warm the planet and ultimately increase demand for air conditioning. “The warmer it gets, the more we run the AC, and the grid becomes less reliable,” says Wagner.

This will be a problem all over the world, especially in developing countries, where more and more people are joining the middle class and can afford technologies like air conditioning. “​AC is really critical—it’s an absolute lifesaver,” says University of California, Los Angeles, Edith de Guzman, director and co-founder of the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative. “We’re entering an unprecedented period: not only are the frequency of heat waves increasing, but , of course, it also increases the intensity.”

That’s why it’s more critical than ever for people to have access to air conditioning — and electricity run machines — especially those with pre-existing conditions. Asthma, for example, can be made worse by the formation of ozone when the temperature rises. And the bodies of older and very young people are not as efficient at cooling themselves, putting them at greater risk. “Heat is the number one weather-related killer in an average year in the United States,” says de Guzman. “It’s an underreported problem. Heat-related illnesses and deaths may not be diagnosed as such.” For example, heat stress can increase the likelihood of a heart attack, but heat won’t necessarily be the culprit.

But the US’s ancient power grids are still woefully underprepared. The Texas grid, like any other, needs to constantly balance supply and demand, which fluctuates throughout the day. “From my point of view, what’s more interesting than rising demand is that demand is happening at simultaneous peaks,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who co-authored a major report on America’s grid last year. “Not only is there more demand, but right now it’s a critical point for the network.”

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