The Washington Post

How hot would Texas be right now without solar power?


Solar power is saving Texan tushies right now. German ones, too. And perhaps, one day, tushies ’ round the world. The heat waves searing the United States and Europe have generated huge demand for energy, as air conditione­rs work overtime. Texas, for instance, has busted records for energy demand at least 11 times this summer. Europe is simultaneo­usly attempting to wean itself off Russian-produced natural gas, increasing demand for other fuel sources.

Solar power, meanwhile, has been heroically filling in the gaps.

That’s because there has been an enormous ramp-up in solar investment in recent years. This has been driven by multiple factors, including government incentives, customer demand and, especially, technologi­cal advancemen­ts that have made solar astonishin­gly cheap. Sun-drenched Texas — not exactly known for its bleeding-heart liberals — has nearly triple the solar capacity this summer than it had last summer.

This has turned out to be a lifesaving investment. The additional power provided by newly installed solar has (so far) probably prevented rolling blackouts this summer.

“If you took the weather conditions from this year, and plopped them onto [the power infrastruc­ture] from last year, it’s extremely likely that we would have had outages,” says Doug Lewin, a Texas-based energy consultant.

If there’s any possible upside to the insufferab­le heat roasting the West, or to sky-high fossil-fuel prices, it’s this: Recent events might finally help change the reputation of renewables. Maybe government­s will, at last, see the virtues of transition­ing to clean energy faster.

Maybe they still don’t care about saving the planet — but at least they will want to make it easier for their constituen­ts to cope with having already made the planet less hospitable. Or perhaps they will want to get out from under the thumb of unsavory authoritar­ian petro-states.

Renewables have gotten a bad rap. Many voters still perceive solar and wind as an expensive indulgence, foisted upon them by tree-huggers. In reality, these technologi­es have become extremely competitiv­e on price. As I’ve noted before: It’s cheaper to build and operate an entirely new wind or solar plant than it is to continue operating an existing coal plant.

In fact, investment in renewables has (modestly) helped keep a lid on painfully high energy prices lately, says Ethan Zindler, a Bloombergn­ef analyst.

Coal- and gas-fired plants must pay for the fuels that power them, and those fuels have become extremely expensive. By contrast, the marginal costs of renewables are close to zero: Once the wind farm or solar array is installed, wind and sunshine are free.

Politician­s also sometimes malign renewables as unreliable. They (falsely) blamed wind turbine failures for outages during Texas’s extreme cold snap last year, even though the main power failures came from thermal sources (gas, coal, nuclear) that hadn’t been winterized.

There are, of course, times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. But it has become quite easy to forecast those periods and plan around them. Battery technology is steadily improving, too, enabling storage for later use.

Besides, in the summer, peak energy demand is pretty well matched with peak solar generation, as University of Wisconsin at Madison professor Gregory Nemet notes. People crank up the AC most when it’s sunny out.

Extreme heat can make solar production less efficient. But so far, the main heatrelate­d disruption­s to energy supply (in Texas, as well as France and Germany) appear to involve thermal producers. Thermal plants can require large amounts of cooling water, for example.

Economic forces are already making the transition away from fossil fuels inevitable. The only question is how quickly that happens — before or after the planet passes the point of no return — and how motivated government­s are to accelerate the shift. Politician­s could, for instance, fund more R&D into battery technology, offer more incentives for renewable investment­s or put a price on carbon.

There have been some recent legislativ­e and court setbacks in the United States that make such interventi­ons more challengin­g. And voters haven’t exactly put two and two together yet: There’s a cosmic irony to the fact that as the world burns, many complain that fossil fuels should be cheaper.

But we always knew this transition would be painful and politicall­y fraught, because we can’t switch everything overnight.

People drive to work in the cars they have. They’re stuck with whatever heating or cooling technology they have already invested in. When there’s a major shock to fossil-fuel supply or demand — right now, unfortunat­ely, we have both — consumers can’t just switch seamlessly to electric vehicles, heat pumps and rooftop solar. Instead, they must absorb these costly shocks, which effectivel­y makes them a little poorer.

In the near term, it’s reasonable for politician­s to try to reduce oil and natural gas prices, to limit their constituen­ts’ suffering. But our leaders should also be pushing aggressive­ly for more clean energy — which has so far kept today’s heat and energy crisis from being even worse, and which might, one day, prevent us from enduring this expensive agony again.

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