The heat, our air conditioners and the grid

The air conditioner is truly the quiet hero of the Texas economic miracle. While semiconductors, motor engines and pump jacks rank among some of the key technologies that drive the state’s economy, the air conditioner maintains civility and human dignity in the spaces it cools in spite of the oftentimes oppressive summertime heat.

Last week, the National Weather Service issued its seasonal temperature outlook for June through August that projects above average temperatures for Texas. Should this outlook prove true, our collective air conditioners and, by extension, the state’s electric grid will be put to the test. Again.

In case you’re new to Texas or have otherwise succeeded in forgetting, last summer was brutally hot, with the statewide average hottest monthly temperature registering at 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Texans responded to this mercury rising by holding their household thermostats steady or turning them lower.

The state’s electric grid delivered small miracles in response.

Remarkably, Texas’ electric grid set and met 10 all-time peak demand and six weekend peak demand records last summer based on ERCOT data. This happened without curtailments or blackouts. While electric vehicle charging, data centers, and California emigrants certainly contributed to these demands, air conditioner use prompted by extreme heat played a leading role. At the peak of last summer’s grid records, when electric demand reached 85,508 MW on Aug. 10, temperatures hit 107 degrees in Austin and Dallas, 103 degrees in Houston, and 100 degrees in Corpus Christi.

More triple-digit days ahead

New data from a report released by Texas 2036 and the Office of the State Climatologist at Texas A&M University suggests that last year’s heat records may not be anomalous. According to the report, the average temperature in 2036 will be three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the last half of the 20th century, making temperatures in just 12 years “warmer than all but the absolute warmest year” recorded in Texas’ meteorological history.

These higher average temperatures will contribute to making 100-degree days even more commonplace. Here, the report finds that triple-digit days — the hallmark of Texas’ summertime misery index — will be four times as common in 2036 than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

This heating trend carries tremendous implications for Texas’ electric grid. Data from Texas 2036’s “Future of Texas Energy” dashboard finds that residential sector electric consumption could increase between 50% and 57% by 2050, depending on the pathway the state’s energy sector follows.

This projected increase reflects the greater number of “cooling days” when households will run their air conditions for respite from the heat. The other drivers of electric demand, including data centers and electric vehicles, are not calculated as part of residential demand.

Meeting the growing electricity demand

The relationship here is clear: hotter days will spur greater air conditioning use that will, in turn, lead to greater electricity demands. In the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri in 2021, state policymakers rightfully centered reliability as the energy policy priority. While the new extreme weather report concludes that extreme cold events may happen, they will not be as frequent or probable as days with extremely hot temperatures. The data suggests that extreme heat may also put our grid’s reliability to the test.

The practical solution, and one described in Texas 2036’s energy dashboard, involves a balanced mix of natural gas-fired and renewable energy generation combined with battery storage. Nuclear power could play a role here, too. And the success of any expansion in generation capacity hinges on the availability of efficient, effective electric transmission.

Heat has been, and will be, a part of the Texas experience. Modernity has taught us, however, that air conditioning and a reliable electric grid are essential toward making that experience endurable.

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