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Extreme heat in June offers a test and a warning for the Texas grid

Air conditioning units line the roof of an apartment complex in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Air conditioning units line the roof of an apartment complex in Austin. The heat this week in Texas is expected drive up energy use and test the resilience of the state’s electric grid.

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The weather forecasted for much of Texas this week would be considered extreme in the month of August … but it’s still spring. The heat will likely drive energy use to new highs and test the resilience of the state’s electric grid ahead of what’s expected to be a scorching summer.

Current forecasts have Dallas and Houston in the 90s every day this week and nearing triple digits on some days. Austin is expected to hit triple digits every day and reach a possible high of 104 degrees on Friday. San Antonio is expected to be hotter even than Austin.

“Seeing these kind of temperatures this early in the season ... is definitely a cause for concern,” said Victor Murphy, a program manager with the National Weather Service. “I don't think we'll see a summer like we had in 2011 (Texas’ hottest summer on record). But we could still have a very warm summer.”

Texas is expected to be hottest on Friday, when the average temperatures of the state’s four largest cities will be 101 degrees. But the state’s grid operator expects record-breaking energy use as early as Tuesday.

If Texas' biggest cities "all are going to be pushing 100 degrees at the same time, it's really an indication of when the grid is going to be peaking,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the Webber Energy Group at UT Austin, "because the majority of peak demand in the summertime is driven by air conditioning.”

High energy demand is one half of an equation that has, in the past, led to blackouts on the state’s electric grid. The other half of that equation is insufficient energy supply.

Currently, the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, expects there to be enough energy supply to meet record-breaking demand. ERCOT also has ways of reducing demand short of enacting a planned blackout if necessary.

But the fact that such heat is coming so early in the year has raised questions about whether the grid is prepared for months of blistering weather.

“This will be the test to see how the rest of the summer goes,” Rhodes said. "The Texas grid is built for the summer ... although we have seen some issues lately with a lot of forced outages at power plants.”

Rhodes said if the state grid manages this week's heat without incident, that could mean it is ready to handle similar heat waves in the months to come.

On the other hand, scorching weather this early in the year could signal even hotter days ahead.

“What makes me scared is what does that mean for August?” said Doug Lewin, CEO of the consulting firm Stoic Energy. “If we’re [consuming] 77 gigawatts when we're right about at 100 degrees in Dallas, Houston. What does that mean if Dallas and Houston are 105, 106, 107 degrees?”

He said ERCOT needs to be planning for climate change.

"They cannot continue to use the past as a predictor," Lewin said.

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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