Americans across the nation watched in horror this week as frigid conditions cut power to millions of Texas homes. It left many of us across the country wondering: Could that happen here?
Depending on where “here” is for you, the answer, I’m afraid, is “yes, it can.” Texas faced a similar energy crisis in 2011. These problems aren’t confined to winter months. Where I live in New England, there was a major blackout event back in August 2003 that was caused by a combination of power lines touching trees, software problems and equipment failure. Just last year, California cut power to millions of people to prevent wildfires sparked by live power lines. Floods and hurricanes have also disrupted power supplies for many Americans in more recent memory as well.
The hard truth is that our energy system is more fragile than it should be. With climate change bringing more extreme weather, that’s likely to get worse before it gets better. As a result, our leaders and regulators must fix three crucial vulnerabilities in our current system.
Key Electric System Vulnerabilities in 2021
We are far too dependent on relatively few big centralized power plants to produce most of our energy. That reality coupled with the fact that we rely on transmission lines to carry power from those plants long distances to our homes also exposes us to risk. Problems with just a few of those power plants or transmission lines can quickly affect millions.
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. The infrastructure we built 30 or 50 years ago simply isn’t equipped to handle more common or severe deep freezes in Texas, increasingly abundant wildfires in the West, or today’s wetter, more powerful hurricanes.
Our energy system’s dependence on fossil fuel makes the whole problem worse. Roughly 80 percent of our nation’s energy comes from fossil fuels, including coal, oil and methane gas. Not only is burning fossil fuels for energy wildly inefficient, but it also adds more climate change-causing pollution to our air, which will cause even more extreme weather in our future. And as the events in Texas showed, fossil fuels can be unreliable when you need them most.
What happened in Texas should be a wake-up call not just for Texas but our entire nation. We are all vulnerable to these risks. What happened in February 2021 in the Lone Star State must spur elected officials, regulators and utility companies across the country to build a better and more resilient energy system.
Gas power plants across the state froze, taking 26,000MW, of what was billed as reliable base load power, offline. Photo credit: Entergy
What does a resilient energy system look like?
First, we should produce more of our power locally, and redesign the grid so that problems in one area are less likely to cause outages far, far away. Rooftop solar, energy storage technologies, such as batteries, electric vehicles and community “microgrids” all have a role to play. Rooftop solar panels can be a difference-maker in extreme weather because they produce energy very close to where we use it. Meanwhile, more batteries in our garages, basements or in our electric vehicles allow us to store energy for later. Local energy generation also allows us to actually use much more of the power we produce, since at least 67 percent of the energy we generate from fossil fuel power plants is lost through escaped heat. Plus, we lose even more when that power has to travel long distances over inefficient lines.
An energy system that emphasizes local energy production, storage and the ability to share electricity with our neighbors reduces energy waste and is more resilient under pressure than our current system. Photo Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Second, we must use less energy in the first place. Energy efficiency improvements can reduce stress on the grid at times of high demand, and better-insulated homes, schools and offices are more comfortable in any weather. In Texas and across America, state leaders could cut energy waste by requiring utilities to hit energy-saving targets. This can be done by helping their customers use power more wisely through a medley of approaches, including behavioral programs that put smiley faces on the most efficient customers’ bills; rebate programs for efficient appliances such as electric heat-pumps; free energy audits for customers; and weatherization services and low-cost financing. Consumers can also check out Environment America’s Citizen’s Guide to Reducing Energy Waste for more information on these types of programs.
Third, Americans need to be able to share our locally produced energy with our neighbors, our communities and with other regions of the country. This means investing in local microgrids and efficient long-range transmission if communities elsewhere need clean energy.
Models for developing webs of interconnected microgrids already exist. Utility planners in wildfire-ravaged California and hurricane-hit Puerto Rico are thinking anew and, instead of blindly replacing the centralized energy systems that failed them in the past, they are conceiving of and daisy-chaining together local microgrids that are heavily powered by solar and can function independently and as a network. Under this set-up, if there’s a problem in one area of one local network, it stays contained and those who have surplus power can come to their aid because that’s what good neighbors do.
Likewise, it’s time to start a serious conversation in America about setting up an efficient nationwide electricity transmission network. That way, in ten years, when Texas experiences another freeze, we can be set up to send electricity generated by wind turbines spinning in the Atlantic or by California’s solar fields to their aid. Tragically, right now, Texas’ stand-alone grid and our lack of the right transmission infrastructure, left Texans unable to receive sufficient help from other parts of the country as its own power plants were going offline.
Moving towards 100 percent renewable energy
Let’s be clear: Improving the resilience of our energy system also requires us to move away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy is necessary to reduce the disruptive impact of climate change, and studies have shown that it is possible to build an energy system that’s both powered entirely by renewable energy and keeps the lights on 24/7. And, unlike fuels such as gas and coal that are inherently finite, renewable energy sources will always, well, renew.
The bottom line is there’s been a lot of finger pointing in Texas, laying blame at the feet of particular individuals or technologies. That’s not useful. Instead, now is the time for governors, state lawmakers and regulators to pay close attention to what went wrong, recognize that doubling down on the same failed approaches will only set us up for the next disaster, and make different choices. A cleaner, safer, more resilient energy system is possible. With smart planning and decisions, it can be our reality.