Summer heat brings new challenge to electric grid
After this year’s winter storm in Texas resulted in power outages that ultimately killed dozens, grid issues there and elsewhere are flaring up again in the summer heat.
Experts told The Hill that more needs to be done to prepare the grid in both the summer and the winter as climate change will continue to exacerbate extreme weather conditions and lead to more issues.
“We are going to see more climate-induced weather extremes, there’s no question about that,” said Arun Majumdar, who was the founding director of an Energy Department research agency during the Obama administration.
“The resilience of the system needs to be looked at,” added Majumdar, who’s now a professor at Stanford. Majumdar said the federal government should play a role in the resilience efforts, including through an infrastructure package such as the one under debate in Congress.
Last week, residents in both Texas and California were asked to conserve power. They were asked to set their thermostats higher, turn off lights and avoid using major appliances.
With the request, many Texans flashed back to the February storm, which the state has said killed more than 150 people. A BuzzFeed News analysis estimates it killed 700.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) downplayed the threat during a press conference.
“Everyone who has been trying to make a big deal about the power grid over the past two days, I have found, were the same people who called me a Neanderthal when I opened Texas 100 percent,” Abbott said last week. “They were hoping that there would be a power failure.”
“I can tell you for a fact, as we’re sitting here today, the energy grid in Texas is better today than it’s ever been,” he said.
After the tragedy, the state did attempt to make some changes by passing legislation aimed at improving the grid.
Among them are the launch of an alert system for power outages and weatherization requirements for power generators and transmission lines.
But according to the Texas Tribune, the state may not require companies to start winterizing their equipment until 2022 or later, so the reforms could take time to achieve.
Rajit Gadh, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Smart Grid Energy Resource Center expressed concern that grid issues were cropping up so early this year.
“We’re very early in the summer and we’re already seeing these days, in California in particular, which in the past have not been observed for a while,” Gadh said.
He added that the first time you ask people to conserve power, they’ll do it, but could become fatigued later on.
“If you’re going to see this sort of a situation start so early in the summer and continue … I think the people are going to get exhausted,” he said.
Gadh said that heat can put stress on the grid while increasing the demand for energy as people crank up their air conditioners.
In general, he said, one reason grid problems are so hard to solve is because of how old some of the technology is.
“Our grid in many parts of this country is up to 100 years old. Imagine you are trying to modernize it. You want to put something that is like an iPhone type technology next to something that was invented before the digital world even existed,” he said.
Although the west and southwestern U.S. are seeing record-high heat for June, Rebecca Miller, a research manager at research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, said that this summer’s impacts aren’t likely to be as great as what happened during the Texas winter storm.
“Some of the events that happened in February were exacerbated by it being winter, so natural gas shortages from pipeline freeze-offs and things like that aren’t necessarily going to necessarily be issues during a summer peak,” Miller said.
Miller said that something that can help alleviate some of the issues this summer is that more solar power is expected to go online in Texas and she said that both more power and battery storage could help alleviate some of the issues going forward.
“We’re looking forward to another gigawatt of storage coming online in Texas over the next year or so and another couple gigawatts of solar and I also think those will be very helpful particularly around these summer peaks,” she said.
And some of the experts also endorsed generating power locally, including through rooftop solar or grids within the community so that it doesn’t have to travel as far.
“You’re automatically summer-izing and winterizing because you’re just not sending large amounts of power over long distances,” Gadh said when referring to rooftop solar in particular.
These persistent issues are continuing as Washington debates various infrastructure packages, which are likely to include some form of grid resilience.
President Biden’s infrastructure wish list includes tax credits and incentives for high-voltage power lines, and creating a Grid Deployment Authority at the Energy Department aiming to spur the buildout of additional transmission lines.
“Those two elements of addressing climate change, one is to decarbonize a system … but also to make it more resilient and adapt and make sure communities don’t get affected, that has to be together addressed in infrastructure,” said Majumdar.