Everything’s Hotter (Again) in Texas

Image courtesy of Andy Sharp for the Austin American-Statesman.

It’s no surprise that Texas can be hot in the summer. For generations, people have been finding creative ways to beat the heat during scorching triple-digit days – whether it’s flocking to the local swimming hole, limiting outdoor activities to early morning or late evening, or testing the limits of their home cooling systems. This summer, however, families across Texas were caught off guard with record high temperatures that came early in June and just don’t seem to be letting up. News headlines the past few weeks in Texas have been staggering – here are just a few examples:

In a Texas City, Heat Proved Deadly Even for Those Long Used to It

Texas cities set temperature records amid relentless heat wave

Texas city under highest level of water emergency, banning all “unnecessary” usage amid hard-hitting drought

Emergency room visits surge, Texans die amid dangerous heat wave

Climate change has sent temperatures soaring in Texas

While many cities across Texas are no strangers to 100°+ days during the summer, the most recent heatwave has broken countless temperature records across the state. The heat index rose as high as 125° in places like Corpus Christi, putting sudden strain on both households and the electric grid. This recent temperature surge was driven in part by a lingering “heat dome,” in which a dangerous combination of high pressure, low wind, and high temperatures kept heat trapped over the state. This phenomenon results in higher temperatures for longer periods of time, making it difficult for temperatures to cool off, even at night. Some experts warn that the heat dome effect may even be more dangerous than a typical heat event “due to the longevity of near-record or record high nighttime lows and elevated heat index readings.” In Midland, for example, the low temperature on a Sunday in late June was 81 degrees – a new all-time record. Over 180 nighttime temperature records were broken over a one-week period in late June and early July across the Southeast. Cities are even more likely to experience higher temperatures for longer periods of time due to the urban heat island effect, in which asphalt, concrete, buildings and roads trap in heat and release it back in the air as temperatures would otherwise be cooling down. Houston, for example, had 14 days in June where temperatures did not drop below 80 degrees – nearly triple what is typical for that month.

The record high day and nighttime temperatures have been incredibly dangerous for Texans across the state. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been record high heat-related emergency room visits for the region that includes Texas, with thousands seeking help during the recent heatwave. Only about half of health facilities report heat-related hospital visits to the state health department, meaning that figures are likely heavily underreported. In Dallas County, for instance, there were 260 reported heat-related hospital visits in a two week period in June – nearly four times what it was for all of June 2022. In Hidalgo County, hospital staff estimated that 15-20% of all recent emergency room visits were heat related. In Laredo alone, 10 heat-related deaths were recorded for the period between June 15-July 3. Heat-related health impacts especially affect community members with preexisting vulnerabilities, such as those with underlying health conditions, the elderly, outdoor workers, and low-income households, which are disproportionately community members of color. According to the Department of State Health Services, 298 people died of heat-related causes in Texas last year. This figure, likely an undercount due to reporting hospital practices, is the highest annual total in more than twenty years. 

The rise in high nighttime temperatures is likely adding additional strain to people with preexisting vulnerabilities. Studies show that high nighttime temperatures can add to the body’s accumulated heat stress, increasing the risk of health complications and making it difficult for the body to fully relax for sleep. Heat risks may also be underestimated as it takes time for the combined stresses of heat to impact underlying health conditions. Typically, deaths and other serious health impacts during extreme heat events begin about 24 hours after heat stress has begun to affect the body. In cases where nighttime temperatures are not letting up, the body is unable to return to a relaxed, comfortable state, putting prolonged stress on those with existing health risks.

TEPRI’s research has shown that families that contend with low and moderate incomes are often forced to make tradeoffs when it comes to affording home cooling in the summer. Our forthcoming Community Voices in Energy Survey Report, which surveyed 6,600 households across the state, indicates that roughly 27% of all survey respondents completely turn off their air conditioning during periods of time in the summer to save money. This figure rises to 35% – over one third of all respondents – for those who set the temperature of the thermostat to an uncomfortable level in the summer to reduce their electricity bills and save money. Diving in further by income group, the figures are even more concerning:

Responses by income group to “I turn off my air conditioner/thermostat in the summer to reduce my electricity bill and save money.”

Income GroupNoYesTotal
Less than $13,00069% (1248)31% (572)100% (1820)
$13,000 – $27,00072% (1258)28% (500)100% (1758)
$27,000 – $50,00075% (1280)25% (438)100% (1718)
$50,000 – $80,00081% (925)19% (218)100% (1143)
$80,000+88% (123)12% (17)100% (140)

Most alarmingly, this data indicates that there is a degree of correlation between income groups and the behavior of turning off air conditioning during the summer to save money. Of all survey respondents, those with lower incomes were more likely to turn off their air conditioning during the summer months. Roughly 31% of respondents making below $13,000 (aproximately 100% of the Federal Poverty Line) indicate that they turn their air conditioning off during summer months to save money. While the data shows that this percentage decreases as income increases, there is still an alarming number of people across the state who are in a position where they choose to turn their air conditioning off in order to afford their electricity bills, increasing their risk of negative impacts to health and well-being. 

Responses by income group to “I set the temperature of my air conditioner/thermostat at an uncomfortable level in the summer to reduce my electricity bill and save money.”

Income GroupNoYesTotal
Less than $13,00068% (1230)32% (590)100% (1820)
$13,000 – $27,00065% (1151)35% (607)100% (1758)
$27,000 – $50,00062% (1072)38% (646)100% (1718)
$50,000 – $80,00065% (741)35% (402)100% (1143)
$80,000+69% (96)31% (44)100% (140)

While the language of this question uses the subjective term “uncomfortable,” these results still paint a picture for how energy bill affordability motivates behaviors around home air conditioning. Families across Texas, faced with longer and hotter heat waves, choose to keep their homes at an uncomfortably high temperature in order to afford their electricity bills. Others choose to keep their homes at warmer temperatures as their home air conditioners and cooling systems struggle to operate in extreme heat. 

For both of these questions, behaviors may also be motivated by how the condition of their home affects their home cooling system’s efficiency. With home and rent prices nearing all-time highs, families that contend with low incomes often must live in homes with leaky building envelopes, poor insulation, older or inefficient air conditioning systems, or in homes that lack cooling systems altogether. These issues make it more difficult to cool homes in the summer and create additional strain on the cooling systems, resulting in expensive, seasonal spikes in  energy costs. Conversely, these challenges affect low income families in the winter, too, making these expensive, seasonal spikes in energy costs a year round burden. Inefficient homes not only put stress on families from a financial and comfort perspective, but also create additional strain on the electrical grid through increased electricity demand. Extreme summer temperatures highlight the value of home energy efficiency improvements, particularly for households who contend with low incomes, but also collectively from the perspective of electricity demand reduction and grid stabilization.

The ERCOT grid has already broken four all-time demand records this summer due to the prolonged summer heat. On Monday, July 17, electricity demand rose to 82,104 megawatts (MW) – an all-time high for ERCOT. While the increased demand is being driven by a number of factors, including the state’s rising population and increased electrification, it is also driven by the unprecedented and unrelenting heatwave, fueled by a changing climate. 

ERCOT records show solar and wind energy have helped to manage the record demand this summer. Solar systems, for example, provided 20% of power to the ERCOT grid on June 27th – a day in which an all-time record was set and demand exceeded 81,000 MW. Wind energy has also helped to provide additional electricity supply at night, especially as nighttime temperatures are remaining higher than usual.

At the time of writing, we are only about halfway through the summer season in Texas. There is still much that could be in store for both Texas families and the electricity grid as the rest of the summer approaches. Nevertheless, it has become clear that prolonged heat waves and record-breaking temperatures are becoming more common and severe in Texas. A report by the Texas Tribune shows that “over the last 10 years, there were more than 1,600 days when a heat record was matched or broken at one of 22 weather stations across Texas. That’s more than 1,000 more record-breaking days than the 561-day average at those stations in the decades prior to 2013.” The below map (courtesy of the Texas Tribune) shows that heat increases are also not being felt equally across the state, with the highest average temperature increases being concentrated in West Texas, Corpus Christi and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and in the area by the Gulf Coast. 

Rise in average monthly temperatures by county between two periods: 1895-2012 and 2013-2022. Image courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

With more and more Texans winding up in hospitals due to heat-related illness and the costs of staying cool imposing an unmanageable energy cost burden, policymakers must turn their attention to ways to reduce heat strain. Efforts like a law that overrides city and county ordinances to protect outdoor workers, which recently passed the Texas Legislature and goes into effect September 1, are simply a step in the wrong direction when it comes to public health protections. Households are struggling to afford home energy bills. Prolonged periods of summer heat only put more strain on household budgets. Efforts to expand access to energy efficiency, new appliances, and renewable energy will not only help to reduce household energy bills, but also ensure that electricity demand is reduced across the board, helping to improve grid stability.

For many Texans, grid reliability is also a lingering concern. ERCOT issued a conservation notice on June 20th, reminiscent of past ERCOT notices, including during Winter Storm Uri in 2021. TEPRI research shows that Texans have varying degrees of concern with respect to weather conditions and the risk of power outages. Roughly two-thirds (67%) of respondents indicated that they are either somewhat, moderately or extremely concerned about weather-related events causing power outages in Texas. While the concerns expressed in this question are not isolated to only potential grid failures, roughly one-fourth of respondents are extremely concerned about weather-related events impacting access to electricity.

TEPRI will continue to monitor the events this summer and measure impacts of rising and prolonged summer heat. Stay tuned for our forthcoming Community Voices in Energy Survey for more in-depth statewide and regional analysis of Texas households and their relation to energy.