As record heat set in across El Paso in July, Dave Hawkins sat in front of his computer at El Paso Electric’s Downtown headquarters asking himself exactly how hot it would get that day.
To the executives at El Paso Electric who are tasked with ensuring there’s always enough electricity to power the region, temperature is everything. The hotter it is, the more electricity air conditioners must use to keep El Pasoans comfortable and safe from the life-threatening summer heat.
“I’m staring at my computer screen and wondering how much higher can this (demand for electricity) go?” Hawkins said, recalling July 19, when demand for power across the Borderland rocketed far beyond the utility’s expectations.
In meetings throughout that day, Hawkins, a vice president at El Paso Electric, said the utility’s planners were trying to figure out what would be the “top” – the point when demand for electricity peaks – and how EPE would supply enough power for its customers, who span from Hatch, New Mexico, to Van Horn, Texas. In such moments when EPE needs extra power, it can buy and import electricity from other utilities, such as New Mexico-based PNM, or independent power producers such as Guzman Energy.
Soon, as the temperature on July 19 at El Paso International Airport hit 111 degrees, El Paso Electric’s customers were using more energy than ever before in the utility’s 120-year history. By late-afternoon, demand peaked at 2,384 megawatts of electricity – over 200 megawatts higher than EPE expected. One megawatt is roughly enough to power 200 homes on a hot, summer day in Texas.
Hawkins and his team got to work procuring electricity. He let his boss – El Paso Electric CEO Kelly Tomblin – know he had the situation under control. There would be no power shortages or city-wide blackouts in El Paso.
“I tell her, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve done this before,’” Hawkins recalled. “But it is (stressful). Summer is not my favorite time of year.”
The unprecedented heat the El Paso region is experiencing this summer has driven power demand here to never-before-seen levels and stressed the region’s electricity systems. As climate change has led to hotter summers where daily highs surge past were once considered “normal” temperatures, it has made it harder for utilities like El Paso Electric – which base their estimates largely off historical weather data – to predict demand for energy.
Utilities try to estimate how much electricity they’ll need years and decades in advance. That way, a utility like El Paso Electric has an idea how much power it will need to produce. Then EPE can plan investments into new generation, such as a power plant, solar farm or something else, which typically take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.
Back in 2021, EPE estimated the maximum amount of energy it would need to supply at any given moment each year through 2040 – a number known in the utility industry as “peak demand.” EPE expects to see demand rise each year as the city’s population grows and residents adopt more power-hungry technologies such as electric vehicles or refrigerated air conditioning.
But just two years after EPE’s forecast, the peak demand record set in July of 2,384 megawatts was greater than the peak demand El Paso Electric expected to see in 2030 – a sign the record heat is creating a bigger need for electricity than for what EPE planned.
“That certainly is not what you would expect,” Candise Henry, a senior energy specialist with North Carolina-based research nonprofit RTI International, said of the forecast miss.
“If you’re already peaking past what the expected demand will be in 2030, then there’s some sort of factor that must have changed between the last time that EPE put out this (estimate) and now that was not accounted for that does need to be accounted for,” she said.
EPE has attributed the record demand to all-time high summer temperatures and more widespread use of refrigerated air conditioning. Over half of the utility’s customers have refrigerated AC units, according to El Paso Electric.
Blackouts and outages
Part of the reason El Paso Electric has avoided any major blackouts this summer is because the utility continues to rely on four gas-fired power plants units – in Sunland Park and the far Northeast – that all started operating between 1957 and 1963.
EPE previously said it planned to abandon one of the units and scheduled for retirement two other power plant units at the end of last year, but has kept them all running until its new Newman 6 power plant and a separate solar farm begin operating.
When El Paso Electric in 2019 was seeking regulatory approval for the Newman 6 plant – which is scheduled to start producing power in September – the utility said it needed to replace the “older, less efficient generating units.” While all four plant units are at least 60 years old, the industry-average age for recent retirements of gas-fired power plants is between 40 and 50 years old, according to EPE.
“This is a real challenge to manage this heat,” Tomblin, the utility’s chief executive, said at a press conference in July. “And it’s a real challenge given the state of our infrastructure, which we’re trying to improve.”
El Paso Electric has been among the most reliable utilities in Texas in recent years, according to Department of Energy metrics that gauge power outages. Still, ratepayers have experienced more time without electricity as outages have become more common in El Paso and across the U.S. over the last decade.
In 2013, El Paso Electric customers experienced on average 0.5 outages lasting 48 minutes for the year. By 2021 – the most recent year with available data – EPE customers on average saw 1.4 outages lasting a total of 2 hours and 45 minutes. Nationwide, the average utility customer in 2021 experienced 1.4 outages lasting nearly 8 hours. In 2013, the national average was 1.2 outages lasting just under 4 hours.
Last week, thousands of El Paso households experienced hours without power on the hottest August day ever recorded in the city. And in mid-July, EPE said substation transformers overheated in part because nighttime temperatures didn’t fall below 80 degrees. That caused over 55 outages affecting 3,000 customers.
The rising heat presents serious risks to El Pasoans – and underscores how essential electricity and air conditioning are to human health. From the start of June through August 7, El Paso residents made 152 heat-related calls to the city’s emergency services, and 109 people were transported to the hospital over that time for heat-related illnesses or injuries, according to a city spokesman.
In the same time period in 2021, the city received 52 heat-related calls that led to 48 people transported to the hospital. Last year, 86 heat-related calls resulted in 66 people being taken to the hospital.
The increased heat-related health emergencies are correlated with higher temperatures. The average daily temperature from June through the first week of August this year was 89 degrees, a record for that period of time. Temperatures averaged 86 degrees over the same time in 2022, and were 83 degrees on average from June through early August in 2021, according to the National Weather Service.
“Not only does the Southwest have high baseline temperatures, we’re now adding 5 to 10 degrees on top of that. That creates these very stressful conditions,” said Andrew Pershing, director of climate science with the research group Climate Central.
“This is not the new normal. Normal implies that it’s ordinary, that it’s natural. And it’s very much not,” he said of higher summer temperatures. “Our analysis shows climate change is having a detectable, quantifiable impact on the day’s temperatures.”
Climate change, volatile weather
Henry, the energy researcher, said utilities should account for climate change and more volatile weather as they plan for future years. And she said utilities like EPE also ought to plan more frequently as weather increasingly diverges from historical norms.
“Utilities are already looking at multiple scenarios,” Henry said. “So, just adding on the extra layer of some climate uncertainty is certainly something that they can be doing and probably should be doing.”
Henry also said utilities should invest more to reduce customers’ demand. That could involve numerous programs, such as offering rebates for efficient appliances, giving customers money to crank their thermostats up, or charging customers lower rates to use power when demand is low, like at nighttime.
Hawkins, however, said El Paso Electric’s planners won’t overreact after the exceptionally hot summer.
“What they won’t necessarily do is say ‘This is a new baseline,’” Hawkins said of this year’s record-breaking summer demand. Instead, the utility’s researchers will “pull it all back in and say, ‘OK, was this year an outlier? If it is, why?’” he said. “So, we’ll get a new forecast.”
As the utility studies this summer and plans for future years, it’s possible the extreme heat this year will prompt EPE to try to add some new form of generation – a power plant, solar farm or an array of batteries, for example – perhaps a year earlier than it would have previously, Hawkins said.
Both Hawkins and Tomblin said the historically hot weather this summer justifies the utility spending $193 million to build the controversial Newman 6 natural gas plant, which is set to boost household bills by an average of $2.50 per month when it starts running. The 228-megawatt plant will bolster the utility’s energy supplies, and will emit around 790,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the El Paso region’s air every year.
This year’s summer heat demonstrates “the unpredictability of the planning process,” Hawkins said. “It certainly shows the need for more efficient generation that you can start up instantaneously, or you can back off to accommodate more renewables, which we plan to add to our systems.”