City officials can also fix the spaces around homes. The “urban heat island effect” is the result of structures like buildings and pavement absorbing the sun’s energy during the day and releasing it slowly at night. With each passing day of a heat wave, the temperature inches up. “Staying hotter into the night means that the human body is not always able to recover,” says de Guzman, of UCLA. On a hot day in Los Angeles, for example, officials can expect an 8 percent rise in mortality above normal levels. “But occasionally, we see that when it’s multiple days—you’ve got 3-, 4-, 5-day heat waves—that number can go up to 30 percent. So escalating back-to-back extreme heat days are much more devastating,” she continues.
The heat island effect can be mitigated by creating more green spaces, in which plants “sweat” to cool the local air. Growing trees around buildings also provides shade, which makes sequential days of heat more bearable and allows the occupants to cut down on AC use.
These local and homeowner-led changes will help, but the bigger fixes will need to happen at the state and national levels. The US was oh so close to getting some of these fixes on a large scale. Last year the Biden administration requested $10 billion to create a Civilian Climate Corps, which among other things would have put Americans to work insulating homes and retrofitting cities to withstand extreme heat. But like much of the Democrats’ climate agenda, the proposal has stalled.
In Texas, grid operators could better connect their grid to their neighbors’. “If they want to have more interconnections with the rest of the country, then they probably would have more stability in the Texas grid,” says Victor. But that would open the state up to more regulation. If Texas officials want to continue to go it alone, they can keep up their momentum when it comes to deploying renewables. In the first quarter of this year, wind and solar accounted for a record 34 percent of the power Ercot transmitted, according to a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. The growth of solar power is what has in large part kept the grid alive during this heat wave.
There’s also a bigger-picture grid problem: As utilities adopt more renewables, the supply-demand calculus gets extra complicated because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. The ideal grid could shuttle energy over vast distances, for instance from the sunny Southwest in the late afternoon to the Midwest, where it’s two hours later and may already be dark.
But at the moment, the national grid just isn’t equipped to handle that. Although the price of renewables has dropped enough that it’s now economically feasible to site solar and wind all over the place, not just where it’s sunniest and windiest, these installations can’t yet supply enough power to outright replace fossil fuels. Operators still rely on natural gas to fill the gaps when renewable energy isn’t available. A future all-green grid will need lots of long-distance high-voltage lines that connect regions to make sure power can be ported where it’s needed, without having to fall back on gas.
Texas is a bright-red warning light, showing how climate change is already making American summers miserable. Extreme heat will only get worse from here, but there are local, national, and global ways to adapt. “I would say there’s no silver bullet,” says de Guzman. “We really need to diversify that portfolio for cooling in as many ways as possible.”