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What happens when heat waves and drought stifle zero emission energy sources?

Heatwaves are scorching across the globe, pushing nations ‘to the edge,’ and their renewable energy and zero emission power resources to the brink.

Across the world -- from the U.S. to Italy to France to Japan -- renewable energy sources are under incredible pressure to meet surging power demands. And as some sources fail in the extreme heat, drought, and low-wind conditions, some nations are turning back to coal and other fossil fuels.

This follows a growing trend of countries returning to a reliance on coal to meet energy demands due to inflated natural gas prices and tightening Russian embargoes.

Against the backdrop of a looming energy crisis, poorer countries have invested in natural gas-based power infrastructure while wealthier countries have made a similar decision as they face inflation. As temperatures soar across the world, not all renewable energy sources have been able to function due to the heat’s impact on resources like wind and water. What will this mean as the summer continues to heat up?

Just when the Lone Star State needed it most, Texas’s wind power was currently operating at a fraction of what it's capable of, with turbines generating less than a 10th of their potential.

During the state’s heatwave in June, wind and solar were able to keep Texans cool while avoiding the deadly blackouts that have occurred in the past. Zero-carbon electricity sources were able to meet peak demand just after May’s heatwave exposed the unreliability of fossil fuel power plants.

However, this month, as temperatures reached a record high of 113 degrees Fahrenheit in the scorching southeast region, the wind isn’t blowing and Texas turbines are at a standstill.

This comes as Texas, which produces far more wind power than any other state, is experiencing skyrocketing power demands. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is urging residents and businesses to conserve energy, as wind speeds plummet to lower levels. 23 percent of the state’s energy is provided by turbines. Now, they’re operating at just 8 percent of their scope.

Depressed wind power during heatwaves is not a new phenomenon, but it happens when power is needed the most.

Like the Texas turbines, hydroelectric power in Italy is currently incapable of operating to its fullest potential. As Europe undergoes a rare, severe heatwave, Italy is grappling with what’s been called “the worst drought in decades. The country’s hydropower is becoming dehydrated. Due to rising global temperatures, Italian glaciers are collapsing, causing rapid glacial melt evaporation. This reduces the levels of rivers and reservoirs needed for hydroelectric power. This is a part of an ongoing warming trend: In the last 20 years, Italy has lost 25 percent of its water due to dwindling glaciers. Across Europe, hydropower makes up 14 percent of total electricity. Italy isn’t the only country dealing with strain; Spanish hydro is running at the second-lowest level in 20 years and French hydro is at its weakest in a decade.

“They have very little water to produce with,” Silje Eriksen Holmen, a hydrologist at Volue told Grist. “There’s no end to it that we can see in the forecast.”

In France, nuclear energy production is also in jeopardy. Without sufficient river water to cool down nuclear operations, utility companies including the state-owned electricity provider, Electricite de France SA (EDF), may be forced to reduce or halt operations, as Europe faces a reduction in river water. EDF’s 56 reactors provide electricity across the European continent and now are operating at half capacity, closing dozens for maintenance work, Bloomberg reports. EDF says these levels are the lowest they’ve operated at in 30 years. Another five EDF plants are at risk as major river levels in Europe drop, the company said last week.

While solar may be the first solution that comes to mind as heatwaves pressure other renewable energy sources, increased reliance could pose a problem. Solar along with wind carried Texas over last month’s heatwave, and flooded Europe’s grids.

European countries saw record usage of solar power, amid June’s heat. It was able to supply almost a quarter of the overall energy demand in 5 of Europe’s biggest power markets, reducing the continent's reliance on Russian oil and gas as prices climbed. According to data from the European Energy Agency AG at one point in the afternoon, solar was able to supply 60 percent of the total energy used.

However, as above-average pressure is put on them, the reliability of panels could be decreased or cause a failure on the already strained power grid, according to a May assessment by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. As Bloomberg reports, as more electricity is generated from wind and solar, “large-scale, battery storage is still in its ascendancy,” leaving major grids “more fragile and vulnerable to shock.”

Europe’s drought has even put coal at risk. In Germany, coal-fired power stations rely on tapering waterways to ship fuel via barges. With hydropower, nuclear, and coal all disrupted, and heatwaves constraining other renewables, many places have been left with natural gas.

In the US, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, signed a bill on Thursday, allowing the state to tap into aging gas-fired power plants and add backup generators fueled by diesel amid high temperatures. Similarly, in New Mexico, a coal-fired power plant that was slated to close on Thursday has been stalled. Utility providers advocated to keep it open through September to meet summer energy demands, just as Texas’s heat wave is forecasted to be making its way toward the state.

Across the ocean, Japan has already made the move. In late June, while undergoing an unusual heat wave, a power crunch forced the country to restart retired gas plants to save power and replenish its diminishing energy supply. In the midst of the heat and gas plant reopening, Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida called for using nuclear reactors to the furthest extent possible. Japan is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, however, unlike landlocked countries, it's hard for Japan to get oil and gas. Thus, despite shutting down many of its nuclear power plants in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, Japan might have to operate using nuclear power in the future.

When renewable energy sources aren’t enough, the backup tends to be dirtier options like old coal and gas power plants, and in some cases, oil-burning generators in emergency situations. It's hot in India, monsoon season is underway, and the government has directed firms to increase the purchase of expensive foreign coal. Across Europe, countries are receiving huge imports of liquefied natural gas to avoid blackouts.

It’s a “vicious cycle:” nations turning to burning more coal to cope with an energy shortage, thus increasing emissions, and the likelihood of heatwaves, as they attempt to switch to renewables. But all hope isn’t lost. The answer may be expansion and modernizing the grid.

As Vox reports, adapting grids and energy storage infrastructure to adjust to renewable forms of power is one solution. This modernized infrastructure can look like energy-storing batteries, which after being staved off in California helped balance energy supply and demand last summer.

But it doesn’t end there. According to Vox, changing industrialized nations’ general approach to energy consumption may be key to transitioning in the midst of climate change and extreme heat.


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