Texas State Park police officer Thomas Bigham walks across the cracked lake bed of O.C. Fisher Lake in San Angelo. (AP Photo)

Texas’ Insane Heat Wave Shows Our Grid Isn’t Ready for Climate Change

As weather gets more extreme and the population booms, ERCOT and state leaders need to get a grip on reality.


Delger is a smiling woman with black hair, wearing a light sweater vest over a checkered black, white and brown flannel.

For three generations of one Fort Worth family, the effects of climate change are readily apparent. Christopher Gomez, 22, recalls talking to his grandmother about how their city’s typical weather has changed over their lifetimes. When his grandmother was young, she told him, the weather in Fort Worth “used to be amazing.” But now, there’s no escape from the nearly year-round heat.

Gomez himself hasn’t known Forth Worth as anything other than hot. “And it just feels like it is getting hotter,” he said. From his grandmother’s perspective, the climate—not just the day-to-day weather, but what’s considered normal in the region—used to be great and has now become bad. From Gomez’s perspective, the climate he has known since birth has always been bad and is getting even worse.

The obvious effects of climate change, as well as how Gomez has been affected personally, are partly what motivated him to join the nearby Dallas hub of the Sunrise Movement, a national network of young people organizing for climate action.

This unseasonable spring has given Texans a stark, local example of the global climate crisis. In March, the state saw its earliest-ever string of 90-degree days. And this month, we experienced our earliest string of triple-digit days. After weeks of these sweltering temperatures, on May 13 the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s stand-alone grid, issued a warning: Texans need to conserve electricity or risk another dangerous power outage.

Combined with recent population and business growth across Texas, this early heat wave is causing record demand for air conditioning and electricity—that is, if people can afford it.

“It’s been absolutely insane,” Gomez said. “I’m fortunate enough to have central air conditioning, so I can adjust my thermostat and escape from the heat. But a lot of poor and working-class people, whether they work outside, or they don’t have central A/C in their homes… they just have to endure the heat.”

Compounding the problem, six of the state’s power plants went offline last week due to maintenance problems, according to the ERCOT statement. The loss of that generating power strained the electric grid’s capacity to meet demand even from those who are willing and able to pay.

As climate change continues to accelerate, Texas’ current difficulties will only grow unless the state’s leaders agree to rein in our collective greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, Texas needs to address those symptoms of the climate crisis that are already here—like brutal heat waves coming increasingly early in the year.

“This is pretty early in the game,” said Paul Pastelok, a senior meteorologist and lead long-range forecaster at AccuWeather

Historically, Texas has not experienced heat like this until June or later in the summer, he explained. Pastelok added that scientists have evidence of climate change playing a role. 

“We’re seeing it, because of the effect it’s having. It’s causing more extremes in the weather,” he said. 

The remaining question in his mind is just how fast things are changing.

A 2021 report from the state climatologist’s office predicts the number of triple-digit days we experience each year will double by 2036 (the 200th anniversary of the Republic of Texas) compared to the typical number of 100-degree days over the past 20 years. And year-round, the report predicts that average Texas temperatures in 2036 will be 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were from 1991 to 2020, and a full 3 degrees warmer than they were from 1950 to 1999.

The state’s heat and electricity woes come on the heels of an alarming update from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations agency for weather and climate science. The agency recently forecasted that the planet’s annual average temperature has a 50:50 chance of rising 1.5 degrees Celsius (equal to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above historic pre-industrial temperatures, at least temporarily.

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“The 1.5°C figure is not some random statistic,” the WMO’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas explained in a statement. “It is rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.”

Under the 2015 Paris climate deal, nearly every country in the world agreed to try and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The United States and other governments, however, have fallen way behind in meeting that goal. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise (after a brief drop in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and climate change is accelerating rather than slowing down or stopping.

Gomez wished he were surprised by the WMO update, but said that with the removal of many climate provisions from President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, he wasn’t optimistic about the country doing enough to limit the climate crisis. Scientific reports like this one “just confirm what we’ve already known for a while,” he said.

Heat itself isn’t the only thing Texans should be worried about. Combined with an ongoing drought throughout the southwestern United States, hotter temperatures are driving up the risk of wildfires in much of the state. Although there’s some year-to-year variability, rising temperatures are also warming up the Gulf of Mexico, adding moisture and energy that can fuel more intense rainstorms and hurricanes.

And of course, extreme weather of all kinds endangers the state’s electric grid, which is already stretched to its breaking point. At least one of the six power plants that shut down on Friday had postponed scheduled repairs after ERCOT asked facilities to stay online to deal with the heat wave. Disastrous power outages during Winter Storm Uri last year turned a spotlight on the grid’s flagging capacity. While ERCOT claims to have added more generating power since last year, experts say that’s still not enough.

“They’re not accounting for climate change in these estimates,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University who in addition to studying the science of climate change has researched the state’s power grid. To predict demand, officials rely on data from the past 15 years. But given that the climate is changing, “that’s not a good way to predict what the future is going to be like,” he explained.

Dessler urged the grid operator to change its policies and procedures.

“Climate change to ERCOT is like Voldemort in Harry Potter; you can’t name it. They have to be able to say the words ‘climate change,’ they have to understand that climate change is going to be a factor. And they have to include that in their forecasts,” he said.

The state’s growing wind and solar industries are helping, both with electricity-generating capacity and with the price of electricity. But ultimately, the grid needs to be redesigned to more seamlessly integrate these renewable but intermittent sources of energy, according to Dessler. In addition, he said, the state desperately needs more power lines to transport electricity from West Texas, where sun and wind are abundant, to population centers in East Texas.

While the climate and the power grid are both at perilous points right now, experts and activists alike emphasize that there’s still time—albeit a shrinking window of time—to fix the situation.

“We’re shown a lot of these apocalyptic movies and shows of the singular event that happens that wipes everything out,” said Gomez from the Sunrise Movement. In reality, he pointed out, climate change is a steadily growing march of earlier and longer heat waves, higher category hurricanes, more flooding in coastal areas, longer droughts, and more dangerous wildfires.

“I think once people start to realize that that is what we’re talking about, then it’ll be much clearer, much more apparent [that] it is now, it’s happening, we need to do more now,” he said. In the meantime, temperatures are still unseasonably hot, and according to long-range weather forecasts, Texas has an even hotter summer to look forward to.