John M. Crisp: Living on the electrical edge in Texas | Columnists


JOHN M. CRISP Tribune Content

A few nights ago the light in my office flickered several times then blinked out. I overreacted: “Well, there goes the grid,” I thought.

To my relief, it was just an exhausted light bulb.

Still, Texans can be forgiven if we’re a little anxious about our electrical grid. Like much of the world, Texas is hot this summer. Texas is always hot in the summer, of course, but this summer is something different.

San Antonio, Houston, Waco and Austin are all recording their hottest summers ever, with average highs five to eight degrees above normal. Where I live the temperature is headed toward 102 today, and the next time the predicted high dips below 100 degrees is nine days away. Other places in Texas have topped 110.

We’ve had high temperatures in the past. In 1980, the Dallas-Fort Worth airport recorded consecutive-day temperatures of 112, 113 and 113 degrees.

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But there are differences. Now the 100-plus days start earlier, there are more of them, and they last longer into the fall.

Here’s the biggest difference: In 1980, the population of Texas was 14 million. Now it’s close to 30 million. And nearly all of these Texans depend heavily on air conditioning.

Every afternoon as the heat and the demand for energy increase in tandem, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the system operator for Texas’ isolated electrical grid, carefully monitors the gap between consumption and available capacity, which often narrows to single-digit percentage points .

If the gap is too narrow, ERCOT takes steps to keep the power flowing, starting with urging customers to conserve energy. On July 11 and 13, ERCOT told Texans to set their thermostats at 79 degrees or higher and to avoid using major appliances during the hotter parts of the day.

So far, so good. Except for the advisories of July 11 and 13, the precarity of the grid is mostly invisible. But every Texan has lingering memories of the great grid failure of February 2021, when bitter cold caused rolling blackouts, and some lost power completely for four days.

Of course, it’s possible to live in Texas without air conditioning. Humans have done so successfully for millennia. Only 30% of Texas prisons are fully air conditioned. (Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!)

In fact, when I was a kid, air conditioning was the exception. When my dad, ahead of his time, took the bold step of installing a central A/C unit in our frame house, his older brothers — country boys, all — subjected him to a good-natured ridicule for embracing such self-indulgent and energy – Consumptive luxury.

But living without A/C depended heavily on moving air. My high school was only partially air conditioned, and every classroom was equipped with a large floor fan.

So to live without air conditioning is one thing; to live without electricity is another. A house temperature maintained at 80 degrees is comfortable enough, as long as the fans keep spinning. When they stop, it gets hot fast.

This helps explain why Texans are anxious on hot afternoons when energy consumption approaches energy capacity. The isolation of Texas’ grid from the rest of the country’s — largely to escape federal energy regulation — has always been a bad idea. It limits the state’s ability to tap into other resources in case of emergency.

In November, Gov. Greg Abbott asserted: “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.” In February, he equivocated, saying that “no one can guarantee” that there won’t be rolling blackouts.” In fact, considerable reporting indicates that not much has been done to shore up the Texas grid since the disaster of February 2021.

So when the lights flicker, here’s an ominous thought: During the Valentine’s Day freeze of 2021, at least 246 people died. It’s hard to estimate the mortality caused by extreme heat, but The New York Times notes that the “excess deaths” during the heat wave in Oregon and Washington in June 2021 were around 600.

In short, if the electricity fails in this kind of heat, people will die. Even in Texas.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown. Readers may send emails to jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.

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