Temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, 115 degrees and sometimes higher are not necessarily new phenomena for Texas and California — but happening in the early days of June raises profound questions for energy grid operators, electricity generation and the future of U.S. energy security. Electricity demand is high and getting higher; we are an increasingly electrified society. The compounding problems of higher and more volatile temperatures for longer, coupled with an ongoing megadrought across the West as well as challenges within the system mean grid and water security are increasingly hard to guarantee. A recently leaked UN intergovernmental climate report reports “the worst is yet to come.” But what does that mean for our critical water and energy infrastructure today when the impacts are already being felt, in often disruptive ways?
For over a week in mid-June, the headlines were about extreme heat. Utilities asked customers to limit appliance use and raise the temperatures on there are conditioners to at least 78 degrees to avert blackouts. The objective: not to repeat the rolling blackouts of last summer in California and the complete loss of power and days without heat this past February in Texas. That this was just the beginning of what is expected to be another scorcher of a summer is a sinister foreboding of what's in store for the months and years ahead. Western states confront a host of risks, water and energy security being the top two.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2021, more than 57 million people are living in drought areas in Western states. This megadrought can be traced back to 2000 and has only gotten worse, with millions of people now residing in extreme and exceptional drought areas. The forecast is for water levels to go further down as this year's high temperatures and minimal rainfall continue to devastate water supplies. The most significant and most disruptive fire seasons in recorded history have been the most recent ones, with many concerned this year could be even more catastrophic. Utilities are under increasing pressure to ensure infrastructure is safe and not prone nor a contributor to grid instability or wildfires. PG&E pleaded guilty to 64 felony counts for the wildfires in 2018 that killed dozens and destroyed thousands of properties.
For California, the drought is disrupting water supply in dams, a problem for hydropower, and water is required to keep thermal power plants working. Droughts make energy resilience a harder task.
In Texas, a lot is going on, and it has a grid that is islanded from the rest of the country's system. Almost all of Texas has its own grid, known as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which does not transmit electricity outside its borders, living up to its Lonestar state identity. And for a state like Texas, independence has its benefits, but allowing for greater interdependence can also alleviate risk. When power sources from one source are intermittent, or when the temperatures mean plant shutdowns, it is good to have other sources for when demand spikes.
California can import energy from other states, but when weather extremes are happening, the states it would import from are usually also experiencing demand challenges leaving little in the way of contingency for making up for power that becomes difficult to replace. Extremes become more complicated to address.
At the moment, the focus is on extreme summer weather. But it wasn't long ago that Texas let customers go without power for multiple days; the freezing temperatures left gas power plants and much of the energy supply chain out in the cold. ERCOT said that the state’s power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.
Electricity security is vulnerable and becoming more so. Customers pay a high price for lack of winterization and unpreparedness for extremes and rapidly emerging new shocks. But this is the new normal and needs to be fully integrated into operational plans. We witness global weirding weather on both ends of the heat and cold spectrums, which can easily lead to a cascade of failures. The last year in California and Texas illustrates what that can look like — it's scary and real.
Change in all of these cases is not in the future, it is here, and a review of just the last year calls for a new approach to stress testing our critical energy and water infrastructure and planning for the unthinkable. This infrastructure is also susceptible to cyber-attacks. The disruptions to the Colonial Pipeline network impacting much of the Northeast were caused by a non-state (though just maybe the Russian state turned a blind eye or didn't directly sanction or did) ransomware company, Darkside, which ultimately got about $5 million from the company. The point is not the ransom but the susceptibility of the system to attacks. In the Colonial Pipeline example, these are attacks with costs — to consumers, energy security and the overall confidence in our systems.
Climate change is causing consumers pain, pain in the uncertainty of whether the lights will stay on when temperatures rise above 100 degrees and whether the faucet will also remain ready to produce water when we want it.
The United States developed a world-class system but some of that system requires major upgrades to meet climate risks, and yesterday’s infrastructure deal is only a small portion of what we need to be doing and how much we’ll have to pay to truly be ready for the climate changes that are already upon us.
What we have to confront is the growing insecurity to what we have come to see as these basic rights, electricity and water. We also have to confront what we have spent a long time taking for granted. It’s going to take planning for the unexpected and using the forecasts we have to recognize change is inevitable, and we must be better prepared.
Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., serves as the academic director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Global Security, Conflict and Cyber at the Center for Global Affairs and is a clinical professor at NYU School of Professional Studies, Center for Global Affairs. She is also the director of the SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab.