2023 Heatwaves and the Growth of Renewable Energy in the US

2023 has been a hot summer. And not just any hot summer; NASA reported that July 2023 was the hottest month on record since 1880, following the hottest June on record and a record for the “highest monthly sea surface temperature anomaly of any month” according to NOAA’s climate record. A combination of factors such as summer weather, global warming, and recurring climate cycles such as The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pushing warm water and warm weather toward North America have all contributed to the heat this summer. So how are our energy grids reacting?

Americans are using more energy this summer to combat the heatwave

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To deal with these hot summers, residents across the nation are cranking the air conditioning. In the US, average hourly electricity load peaks during the summer, with air conditioning accounting for a large part of this elevated electricity usage, especially across the southern states. According to the EIA 2020 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), 89% of US households use air-conditioning equipment.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp (NERC) warned in its 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment that “two-thirds of North America is at risk of energy shortfalls this summer during periods of extreme demand.” US energy resources are adequate for average summer demand, but given the hot conditions this summer, they were severely strained. However, NERC mentioned that some relief would be found in the rapid deployment of renewable energies such as wind and solar.

How much of this energy is coming from renewables?

With all the excess energy being used for cooling this summer, where is this energy coming from?

There is no fixed number or percentage to point to, as different sources of energy fluctuate every day throughout the day, and this can differ for different areas of a city, as well. However, at one point this summer, renewable energy in the form of wind and solar were providing about 35% of the Texa’s energy supply. At other points, wind was the main source of power being used, generating more energy than any other energy source.

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) reported that solar provided almost half of their power at certain points daily, and also at its daily peaks was almost always the main source of power being used, far exceeding other sources of power in providing energy across the state.

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Are renewable energies reliable energy sources?

No energy source is 100% reliable, and renewable energies such as wind and solar have very clear limitations. As renewable energy sources, they rely on the availability of natural elements, wind and sun.

While natural gas, coal, and nuclear are often viewed as the more reliable energies, it was the failure of these energies during the February 2021 Winter Storm Uri in Texas that caused devastating power outages across the state, costing the lives of 210 people as well as financial losses estimated at over $100B. According to Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas – Austin, half of the state’s gas production was lost, and this in turn cut off power to the power plants.

The takeaway? All energies have their limitations, and when it comes to extreme weather events, you can’t rely on any one source of energy to save the day, which is why almost all energy grids try to diversify their energy resources. However, solar in particular is well-suited to provide reliable energy when the extreme weather event is intense heat. And the sun reliably moves across the sky, rising and setting at very predictable times. While this may seem silly to point out, the fact is that solar energy often performs at its best when it’s sunny and hot, and the same sun that’s causing the heat can also help power AC to help residents ride out the heatwaves.