Climate Change Made the Texas Heat Wave More Intense. Renewables Softened the Blow

A brutal two-week heat wave that has broiled much of the U.S. South and pushed the Texas power grid to its limit won’t be ending anytime soon, federal forecasters warned Friday. 

“There is really no end in sight for the excessive heat that has plagued particularly Texas/southeastern New Mexico in recent days,” the National Weather Service wrote in its online forecast discussion. “Temperatures over 100°F and heat indices much higher will continue expanding east into the Lower Mississippi Valley and north toward the central Plains next week.”

The heat index, which includes humidity, climbed as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit in some Gulf Coast cities, straining the state’s power grid and prompting health advisories and pleas for energy conservation from officials.

While the Lone Star State has so far managed to avoid the kind of rolling blackouts caused by an intense spring heat wave last year and a vicious cold snap in the winter of 2021, Texans may be surprised to learn that solar energy and batteries played a large role in preventing power outages over the last two weeks—even as other energy sources struggled to stay online.

“Yesterday at 6:31CT, one of the four nuclear units in Texas stopped producing power,” Doug Lewin, an energy consultant and president of Austin-based Stoic Energy, wrote on Twitter last Friday. “A new fast acting backup reserve (ECRS, which is mostly batteries) stabilized the grid and prevented bigger problems.”

It happened again Tuesday, when a coal power plant went offline, Lewin noted in a second tweet this week. “This happens a lot during extreme temperatures. We’ll know in a few days which plant it was. Happily for Texans, battery storage filled in the gap,” he wrote. “Storage replaced 75 percent of the lost coal in minutes.”

It’s the kind of narrative that goes against what utility companies have long argued is the biggest weakness regarding renewables: that relying on solar and wind too much would make the energy grid unreliable. Clean energy advocates, however, have argued for years that pairing solar and wind with battery storage could be even more reliable than the systems we use today.

In fact, many top Texas Republicans have been the staunchest opponents to renewable energy. When a powerful winter storm hit the state in 2021, contributing to about 250 deaths, Texas leaders falsely blamed renewable energy. They blamed renewables again for power outage risks the state faced last year due to heat waves. Independent experts have said failing fossil fuel power plants were much more to blame in both of those scenarios.

Solar, too, played a role in preventing blackouts this week, said Lewin, who hosts the Texas Power Podcast. Texas now leads the nation when it comes to renewable energy, with a total of 17 gigawatts of solar power operational this year—or the equivalent of 17 nuclear power plants—which delivered much-needed electricity to the grid as demand skyrocketed, he said.

Lewin said he doesn’t expect Texas energy officials to tout how much clean energy has helped the grid over the last two weeks, even as those systems continue to prevent outages through what’s expected to be a prolonged heat wave. “They have this narrative that they push that they need more dispatchable power plants and need more gas plants,” he said. “It’s a very politically driven narrative by many of the state leaders.”

Many clean energy advocates have said that that political dynamic is holding back Texas, which continues to outpace other states when it comes to installing renewable energy. Without that political resistance, the advocates say, Texas could be installing even more clean energy every year as federal dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act aimed at boosting renewables start to roll out.

Climate change has generally made extreme weather more intense across the United States. But Texas has been hit especially hard by such events in recent years. That’s largely due to the state’s location in relation to the jet stream. And a series of legislative decisions have left the Texas power grid more vulnerable during such events by isolating it from the rest of the country and leaving it reliant on older fossil fuel power plants.

A new analysis of federal data by Climate Central, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that researches climate issues, found that global warming made the extreme heat in Texas last week at least five times more likely to occur. In other words, according to the report, it would have been far less probable that the state would have seen such extreme temperatures in mid-June without the aid of human-caused climate change.

“You can’t blame everything on climate change, this is true, but you can blame a lot on climate change,” Michael Wehner, a senior climate scientist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in an interview with Inside Climate News. “We can blame the fact that the temperatures (in Texas) are five degrees warmer on climate change, and that the likelihood of this event has increased by some large amount.”

Wehner wasn’t involved in the Climate Central analysis, but he said the report’s findings generally lined up with his own research, including a 2021 peer-reviewed study that found that climate change has caused rare heat waves across most of the United States to be 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.

As of Friday, about 20 million Americans were under heat alerts, including in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. The heat dome has stretched as far south as Central America, with Mexico bearing the brunt of its impacts. But in the U.S., some of the worst heat in the coming days will likely be around the Texas Gulf Coast, where the National Weather Service predicts that some places will see heat indices of “at least 110°F every day.”

“Dangerous climate change is here now—if that’s not clear, you’re not paying attention,” Wehner said. “If the electrical system fails again in Texas, people will die.”

More Top Climate News

Montana’s Groundbreaking Youth-Led Climate Trial Comes to an End: Montana’s landmark climate trial came to an early close Tuesday, but a ruling could still take weeks to emerge, Dharna Noor reports for the Guardian. Held v. Montana, filed in 2020 by 16 young Montanans, accuses the state government of violating the plaintiff’s constitutional right to a healthy environment through its pro-fossil fuel energy policies. With similar suits pending in four other states, the Montana ruling could act as a legal bellwether for government accountability on climate change.

France Outlaws Climate Group, Drawing Ire From Greta Thunberg: The French government issued a decree Wednesday outlawing the climate group Uprisings of the Earth, saying the organization’s demonstrations encouraged violence, France 24 reports. The move sparked criticism from climate advocates, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who called for people to stand up for “the right to protest.” While France has free speech protections, legal scholars don’t consider them as robust as in the United States. Climate activists vowed to ramp up protests this week in reaction to the decree.

Meteorologist Resigns, Citing PTSD From Threats Over Climate Change Coverage: An Iowa meteorologist with Des Moines news station KCCI is leaving his career in TV news next month, citing family health issues and post-traumatic stress he suffered after receiving threats related to his coverage of climate change, Daniel Wu reports for The Washington Post. “I’m trying to put it behind me,” said Chris Gloninger, KCCI’s departing chief meteorologist. “But at the same point, I think it brings awareness to what journalists face day-to-day bringing the news.”

Today’s Indicator

48%

That’s how much the U.S. honeybee population declined last year, marking the species’ second highest annual death rate on record, according to a new survey. Scientists said a combination of parasites, pesticides, starvation and climate change are driving the pollinator die-offs.

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