Record-breaking Texas heat overwhelms electrical grid and endangers residents

Even for the always-warm Lone Star State, this summer is unbearably hot.

Houston, Texas. CREDIT: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images
Houston, Texas. CREDIT: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

A deadly heat wave across Texas is testing the state’s electrical grid and endangering residents as unrelenting temperatures tick higher. The typically hot Southern state is seeing dramatic conditions during a sweltering summer that has overwhelmed the United States and a number of other countries.

Record-breaking heat has hammered the Lone Star State since late last week. A heat advisory is currently in place for more than 34 million people across the country as of Monday morning, with a large concentration based in Texas. The capital city of Austin set a daily heat record on Friday when temperatures climbed to 104 degrees Fahrenheit at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, some 10 degrees warmer than is typical for the city at this time of year.

Austin isn’t alone. Multiple Texas cities reported five to six days in a row with temperatures over 100 degrees. An advisory issued last Thursday included the north Texas Dallas-Fort Worth metro area for the first time since 2011. On Saturday, Fort Worth saw a blistering high of 106 degrees, a trend reflected across the state throughout the week.

At Enchanted Rock, a Texas state park located near Fredericksburg, park rangers reported last Thursday that the pink granite mountain’s surface temperature was 133 degrees.

The heat wave has also tested the state’s electrical grid, which is somewhat unique. Of the entire lower 48 states, Texas is the only one with its own power grid. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) that serves most of the state set back-to-back hourly demand records on Wednesday, July 18, only to set a new system-wide peak demand record the next day. More record-setting numbers are expected as the heat wave drags on.


Staggering grid demand has implications for many Texans, especially in low-income communities and areas of the state with reduced infrastructure. According to Public Utility Commission of Texas Chairman DeAnn Walker, approximately 10.4 million Texas households are eligible for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) because they make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Fear of high costs and distance from urban areas where repairs to faulty cooling units are easier can endanger many residents as temperatures soar.

Hot weather is nothing new for Texas, which routinely experiences higher temperatures relative to the rest of the United States, but the current onslaught of heat has led many to point to climate change as a key culprit. While no single event can be specifically attributed to climate change, the pattern of heatwaves experienced recently is consistent with what scientists say can be expected from from the phenomenon.

And with summers growing hotter, advocates say centering vulnerable communities is crucial. “When we’re talking about this summer’s heat waves, and the inevitable ones to come, we have to think about the issue from a climate justice perspective,” said Larisa Manescu, the communications coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

In an email to ThinkProgress on Monday morning, Manescu emphasized that prioritizing the “affordability and accessibility” of renewable energy in the state should be a key priority going forward. Texas derived 18 percent of its energy from wind and solar power last year, a number that is growing rapidly. But access to renewables for many communities has been limited, forcing them to rely on traditional fossil fuels for energy, which in turn release greenhouse gases and spur global warming.

“Our lower-income communities least responsible for climate change are experiencing the double burden of having polluting industries in their neighborhoods while paying high energy bills from insufficient weatherization of their homes and a lack of accessibility to renewable energy that could decrease their energy bills,” she said.

Texans displaced by Hurricane Harvey and those kept in the state’s prisons are also among the more vulnerable populations at risk during this heatwave.


More than 2,300 families are still living in mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after Harvey hammered southeastern Texas last year. The agency cautioned that those living in such homes should monitor the status of their air conditioners during the heat wave, in order to protect themselves from heat stroke.

Officials at state prisons are also taking special measures to protect inmates after ten died in 2011 from heat exposure. According to the San Antonio Express-News, only 29 Texas prisons provide air conditioning in living units, with at least 75 not providing such cooling options out of the more than 100 prisons scattered around the state. This year prisons are introducing offerings like ice water and cooler meals to counter the risk of heat stroke, likely the result of a landmark settlement in May mandating that one Texas prison provide air conditioning.

Advocates argue that protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents should take priority, but many are also underscoring that the heat wave is a sign of things to come. Kate Zerrenner, who serves as senior manager for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas and national water-energy nexus efforts, told ThinkProgress that Texas needs to take immediate action amid warming temperatures.

“I grew up in Austin and the average number of triple-digit days here from 1900 to 1999 was 11 each year, but in the past decade it was 38 per year. Texas can no longer afford not to act on climate change,” said Zerrenner.

“There are some things the state could do right off the bat, like investing in cleaner energy like wind, solar, and especially energy efficiency, the costs of which have been falling dramatically,” she said. “Our energy choices and lack of statewide effort to reduce climate pollution is also putting a severe strain on our water supplies, which have long been a source of stress.”


Texas isn’t alone in sweltering. Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have all seen heat warnings, as have parts of Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Much of the Northeast also experienced a severe heat wave at the beginning of July. Currently plagued by wildfires, the western United States is also set for another round of heat: after shattering records two weeks ago, southern California is expecting a new heat wave beginning Monday.