Deep in the Heat (sic) of Texas

Chris Waller - 21st June 2021
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This week (w/e Friday 18th June) the state of Texas experienced an unprecedented heatwave when temperatures soared to 43C (110F). In response to this the residents of Texas turned on their air- conditioning plunging the state’s electricity grid into crisis as demand caused power-outages. On Tuesday of this week 12 gigawatts of capacity (14% of the state’s total generating capacity of 86 gigawatts) went off-line. That is enough to power 2.4 million typical homes.

Texans may be having something of a déjà vu moment given that back in February, due to unusually low temperatures, the power-grid once again failed due to excessive demand. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – which might consider renaming itself – has asked Texans to limit their usage of air-conditioning to prevent a recurrence.

The irony of all this is that the air-conditioning is being used to counteract the effects of global warming caused by CO2 emissions which are produced largely by fossil-fuel (natural gas) power- stations. To be fair to Texas wind-power constitutes the second largest source of supply, following a huge programme of wind-turbine installation, but when the wind drops, as it usually does in a heat- wave, all demand falls on thermal power-stations.

ERCOT has recommended that residents adjust their thermostats to 78F to raise the point at which the air-conditioning cuts in, thus conserving power. Many homes in Texas are covered by the Smart Savers Texas programme whereby domestic thermostats can be adjusted remotely by the power companies.

Add to this the fact that Texas, indeed the whole south-west of the USA, with a total population of 40 million people, is facing an unprecedented drought. Kathleen Johnson, Associate Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, has warned that this “potentially the worst drought in at least 1,200 years”.

The professor’s home state of California, though not suffering the triple-digit temperatures of Texas or Utah (Salt Lake City hit 107F / 42 C) it is once again facing drought. On Wednesday 16th June America’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, registered its lowest level on record since it was filled in the 1930s. In northern California almost 17m salmon are now being taken to the sea in a fleet of trucks as their river habitats dry up and the water becomes too hot for them to survive.

California is the source of over 80% of the world’s almond production and a single almond is estimated to need 1.1 gallons of water to produce. Around 8% of California’s agricultural water-usage is used to grow almonds. The number of almond orchards has doubled in the last 20 years. My preferred choice of muesli and granola seem suddenly not so environmentally-friendly.

The US Drought Monitor has said that more than 55% of the west is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions. Water in soils is at a historic low point, meaning there’s little moisture to absorb the heat – instead, the land is baking like an oven and creating even hotter conditions.

As a result of the heat and drought, wildfires in the south-western US are expected to begin earlier this year and continue well into autumn. In Arizona aerial water-tankers, used to fight fires, could not fly because of the heat but in any event there was a shortage of water to fill the tankers.

The economic consequences of global warming are nowhere more evident in what remains, for the time being, the world’s largest economy and the present US administration, notwithstanding its plans to stimulate the US economy post-Covid, must surely be looking over their shoulders at the advancing economic threat of climate change. Or if they are not then they should be – prontissimo.

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