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Severe heat: 5 electricity blackout risks facing the entire U.S., not just Texas

By Rachel Koning Beals

Issues in Texas with extreme weather and balancing natural gas and wind to run the electrical grid hold lessons for an entire U.S. at risk for power outages from climate change

It's not just Europe baking under record-setting heat, nearly 20% of the U.S. population, or about 60 million people, will likely see a temperature at or above 100 degrees this week.

Once again, Texas, whose typically hot summers are well off the charts right now, is under heat and power-usage warnings. The heat index, or what the human body experiences with the combination of humidity and heat, could reach 111 degrees in portions of Texas, Oklahoma and South Dakota, into the middle of the week.

In reality, heat extremes increasingly tied to climate change can have an impact in many U.S. states. Since the 1980s, there have been three daily record high temperatures for every two record lows set in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service.

Read: Why you, and your wallet, must get used to heatwaves

Earlier this month, grid operator the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, called on consumers to voluntarily reduce power use when dangerous heat gripped America's second-most populous state.

The conservation paid off as the Texas grid avoided blackouts -- and a repeat of its winter crisis -- despite record or near-record temperatures that depleted electric supplies and risked lost power to more than 26 million customers.

For sure, it's a unique situation, as the state-run power grid system for most of Texas runs outside the main U.S. grids. Still, all Americans can learn from Texas about the fragility of a national power grid that is expected to be challenged more frequently by hot and cold weather extremes brought on by climate change.

The grid will also be tested by increased demand to power electric vehicles (EVs) and conversions to electric heat pumps -- all as part of a transition to a "greener" future.

Here are 5 things to know.

Why is Texas different?

ERCOT, the main, but not only, Texas grid, is unique in its state-run, and not regional, format used by the rest of the country. Because it's an energy-rich state, Texas has been able to set power prices below those seen in other parts of the country, and its independence gives it more pricing authority. But during unusual strain on the system, such as more people blasting their air conditioners longer to combat a record heat wave, it also has no where else to turn.

A lethal winter power shortage in February 2021 notoriously put the state and its independent utility in the spotlight when ERCOT failed to keep residents warm and pipes from bursting. Texas's 2021 outage left more than 200 people dead and rang up $20 billion in damage. Fossil-fuel backers pointed to the rising use of intermittent wind power, which generates 23% of Texas's electricity. Others said natural-gas equipment was frozen under the extreme conditions.

Read:The 10 most expensive climate-change disasters of 2021 cost $170 billion -- and this U.S. storm was No. 1

When ERCOT asked for voluntary conservation of power due to record high electricity demand from a heat wave earlier this month, it also said wind generation would come in at less than 10% of capacity.

Texas currently leads the nation not only in the amount of crude oil it produces, but also the generation of electricity from wind, and it is rapidly approaching a similar position with solar energy as well--making it increasingly important to be candid about what solar and wind energy provides for the state.

As the state continues its transition to clean energy, it needs to be clear with consumers about how much power is needed in the state, and how much of that renewable energy can realistically provide during peak times especially with a changing climate, Joshua Rhodes, a research associate for the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin, told Inside Climate News.

A report late last year from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) said the Texas system without upgrades could see a power shortfall of 37% in extreme winter conditions. NERC's outlook suggested the state and ERCOT isn't prepared for a repeat of weather extremes.

The typically temperate winter weather for much of the state left it unprepared for the shock of 2021; it is better prepared, state officials said at the time, to deal with heat. This summer may test that claim.

Related: Texas power disaster may be strongest case yet for renewable energy

What energy sources create our electricity?

Natural gas is a main energy source to power electricity in Texas and elsewhere, replacing higher-polluting coal over several decades. Increasingly, wind power -- especially in Texas, but elsewhere, too -- and solar power is used for the electricity grid.

Read: Don't rule out natural gas in the clean-energy transition, trade group says

Nuclear has been a small slice of American power, and advocates want more in use as the nation aims for zero greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. Green hydrogen is also drawing investment to get up to scale.

A push to more renewable sources is seen vital to meeting a U.S. goal to half polluting emissions by 2030 and hit net zero emissions by 2050, goals that are aligned with much of the rest of the industrialized world.

In 2021, emissions of atmosphere-warming CO2 by the U.S. electric power sector were about 32% of total energy-related CO2 emissions, the Energy Department says

Trade groups and lobbyists from each energy source make their respective cases: green groups say the U.S. can't switch to solar, wind (ICLN) and hydrogen fast enough, while gas and oil interests say U.S. energy independence and costs to businesses and consumers matter, and they push for carbon emissions capture and storage and other still-young technology.

Price competition among traditional and alternative energy sources are getting closer to a level playing field. From 2009 through 2021, the prices of wind and solar power have decreased by as much as 72% and 90%, respectively, a report from Lazard found.

The Biden administration has set a goal of decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by 2035. Only recently, the Supreme Court ruled to limit the EPA's role in combating climate change with its oversight of power utilities.

Grid repairs are long overdue

Regardless of power source, the system itself is showing its age. The U.S. Department of Energy found that 70% of U.S. transmission lines are more than 25 years old in the agency's most recent network-infrastructure review, held back in 2015. Lines typically have a 50-year lifespan.

The average age of large power transformers, which handle 90% of U.S. electricity flow, is more than 40 years, that report found.

Some estimates put the price tag on an electricity grid overhaul at upwards of $2 trillion. And agreeing on repairs is complicated by the web of state, regional and federal regulatory hurdles to consider.

EVs, heat pumps and more 'green' stress

Advocates for greater EV adoption (TSLA)(RIVN) and swapping, for instance, gas-powered cook stoves and furnaces for electric options, realize any consumer-level "green" push will only be truly climate-friendly if the electricity grid gets "greener" at the same time.

That means there are still growing pains when it comes to flexible use during peak and slower grid-use times, power storage and other factors.

According to Charles Kutscher and Jeffrey Logan, both of the Renewable & Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, there are basically three ways to accommodate the variability of wind and solar energy when used for the power grid: storage, such as with lithium batteries; deploying power generation in a coordinated fashion across a wide area of the country along with more transmission; and managing electricity demand to better match the supply.

Transmission studies have shown that stronger interconnection among the country's three primary power grids (there are seven grids in total) will be highly beneficial, as will making all our buildings, which use 74% of U.S. electricity, way more efficient.

If Texas and the rest of the nation want to reduce the risk of blackouts, growth in all these areas is essential.

Why do we have to prepare for more weather extremes?

No doubt, electricity has made our lives easier and extended how long we might live, period. But burning fossil fuels for power is heating up Earth, making the typical hurricanes, droughts, floods and extreme heat and cold more frequent, not to mention pushing into areas unaccustomed to temperatures challenging the top and bottom ends of a range.

It's just this dangerous weather -- aggravated by our electricity emissions -- that puts added stress on the power grid. It's a worrisome cycle.

Scientists are detecting a stronger link between the planet's warming and its changing weather patterns. Though it can be hard to pinpoint whether climate change intensified a particular weather event, the trajectory is clear -- we are experiencing hotter heat waves, drier droughts, bigger storm surges and greater snowfall, the Environmental Defense Fund says.

Even snowier, colder winters like the storm that shocked Texas can be linked to global warming. Why? There is more moisture in the warmer atmosphere. So even when the temperatures are below freezing, snowfall or freezing rain can break records.

Plus, scientists are studying a possible connection between a warming Arctic and cold spells in the eastern U.S. The idea is that a rapidly warming Arctic can weaken the jet stream, allowing frigid polar air to travel farther south.

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-Rachel Koning Beals

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

07-19-22 1106ET

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