Texas’ precarious power grid is exhibiting an uncomfortable feedback loop

Another extreme weather Event, another lawsuit for the infamous Texas power grid. As temperatures have soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit, residents have turned up their air conditioners, forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which runs the state’s electric grid, to ask customers to limit power usage so the system doesn’t crashes.

And what a unique grid it is. The United States actually has three different grids: those in the west and those in the east roughly divide the country in half. But Texas parted ways with all of that, opting to run its own operations to avoid regulation. That means utilities don’t face penalties for not delivering electricity like regulated states do. And because it’s not intricately connected to its neighbors’ power grids, Texas can’t import much electricity from elsewhere when demand increases, like during this heat wave or a cold snap. This isolationist attitude has left it ill-prepared to weather the extremes of climate change.

“Texas is once again in a unique position where it has basically isolated itself from the rest of the power grid,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School.

This has locked the state in an increasingly awkward feedback loop: as summers get warm, people need to run more air conditioning to avoid ailments and heat-related illnesses. But that requires more energy, resulting in more emissions that further heat the planet and ultimately increase the need for air conditioning. “The hotter it gets, the more we run the air conditioning and the less reliable the network becomes,” says Wagner.

This will be a problem around the world, especially in emerging economies where more and more people are entering the middle class and can afford technologies like air conditioning. “AC is really critical — it’s absolutely life-saving,” says Edith de Guzman of the University of California, Los Angeles, director and co-founder of the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative. “We are entering an unprecedented time: not only are heat waves increasing in frequency, but of course also in intensity.”

That’s why it’s more important than ever for people to have access to air conditioning—and the power to go with it run the machines – especially those with previous illnesses. For example, asthma can be aggravated by the formation of ozone as temperatures rise. And the bodies of the elderly and the very young 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 issue. Disease and death caused by heat must not be diagnosed as such.” For example, heat stress can make a heart attack more likely, but heat isn’t necessarily fingered as the culprit.

But the legacy power grids in the US remain woefully unprepared. The Texas grid, like any other, must constantly balance supply and demand, which fluctuate wildly throughout the day. “In my view, what’s more interesting than the increasing demand is that the demand is occurring at simultaneous peak times,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who co-authored a major report on the US grid last year. “Not only is there a higher demand, but at this point in time is already the critical point for the network.”

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