A year ago, a blast of Arctic weather swept through Texas, bringing the state’s energy system to its knees. Millions lost power amid record cold, causing over 200 deaths and up to $195 billion in damages, making Uri the costliest natural disaster in Texas history.
The collapse of the energy system in Texas – a state synonymous with “energy” in the minds of many Americans and people around the world – was ironic, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Texas’ energy system, much like the energy system in the rest of the country, is largely dependent on fossil fuels and large power plants hooked up to a centralized grid. Time and again in recent years – in every region of the country – Americans have had to deal with the vulnerabilities of that system to storms, fires, cyberattacks and other threats.
America’s network of generation stations, transmission lines, fuel pipelines and other energy infrastructure is an engineering marvel that was crucial for the United States to improve quality of life and to build many pieces of the modern economy. But it is also old and no longer optimal for current needs.
The good news is that a modern, resilient and clean energy system is within our reach. A smart energy system built on renewable energy sources that don’t run out, distributed generation technologies that don’t rely on vulnerable infrastructure, and energy storage systems that provide backup electricity when the power is out, can improve our resilience to storms and other shocks.
As last year’s Texas freeze showed, our current energy system is extremely vulnerable for several reasons:
Reliance on a centralized grid can quickly turn small problems into big ones. In Texas and across the U.S., we rely on big, centralized electricity generators – mostly fossil fuel and nuclear power plants – located far away from the population centers they serve. Those generators are then hooked up to grids that span areas ranging from the size of the state of Texas to half of the U.S. Those vast grids must maintain a constant balance of electricity supply and demand in order to function.
If a small number of power plants, or a key transmission line, goes offline for some reason, huge portions of the system can fail simultaneously. That’s what happened last February, when oil and gas wells froze and critical equipment in pipelines and generators failed, shutting down pipelines and power plants across Texas and leaving more than 4.5 million people in the cold and the dark.
Interdependence between energy systems can exacerbate failures. In Texas, power plants are dependent upon consistent supplies of fossil gas, which is mostly methane and is a climate and air pollutant that causes environmental and health damage. Less well known is the fact that the gas production and transportation system also relies on electricity to function properly. Last February, power outages were among the factors that shut down gas production and transportation operations across Texas, which in turn led to less gas finding its way to power plants, contributing to the downward spiral that left millions without power.
Such interdependencies occur throughout our energy system. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, for example, residents of the Mid-Atlantic discovered that they could not obtain gasoline because power outages rendered gas pumps inoperable. The experience led to legislation requiring many stations to have on-site generators.
Much of our energy system is old and in disrepair. Maintaining vast networks of transmission lines and pipelines requires money and constant attention. Both have been lacking, making an already vulnerable energy system even more frail.
In California, old, poorly maintained power lines have sparked devastating wildfires that, in turn, have led utilities to order preemptive power cuts to large areas when conditions are ripe for wildfires. In last February’s Texas storm, the failure or refusal to weatherize gas infrastructure and power plants contributed to the system’s collapse. Though power plants in Texas have been required to weatherize after the freeze, the weatherization requirements for gas producers are much less stringent and transparent and may not even take effect until next year.
Fossil fuels aren’t as reliable as they seem. Fossil fuels are often sold to the public as being reliable sources of energy. But fossil fuels are vulnerable to supply shortages, disruptions and price changes, all of which can have big impacts. Last winter in Texas, for example, demand competition for gas to heat homes and other buildings and to generate electricity led to neither system getting enough fuel – and to people losing their heat and, in some cases, living for up to four days without power. Even those who didn’t lose power didn’t remain unscathed: some received electric bills of up to $17,000. And as Texans were shivering in the dark, gas producers were raking in billions of dollars in windfall profits from consumers.
Climate change will magnify the issues. Our current energy system was not designed for the conditions America will face in the years to come as a result of climate change – and the impacts are not always obvious or predictable. Some scientists have even connected last February’s winter storm Uri, with its frigid temperatures in Texas, to climate destabilization driven by global warming,
Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants depend on access to water for cooling. Drought and increased temperatures can cause those plants to be forced to shut down, while, on the flip side, extreme weather puts power plants located near water sources at risk of flooding. Meanwhile, changes in the timing of precipitation and the share of precipitation falling as snow threatens the reliability of large hydroelectric plants.
If our current system, reliant on fossil fuels and a centralized electric grid, is vulnerable to catastrophic failures, what is the alternative?
The answer: A clean energy system that uses energy efficiently, generates and stores energy as locally as possible, and obtains most or all of its energy from clean, renewable sources that don’t run out.
Major sources of renewable energy – such as wind and solar power – are subject to the vagaries of weather (and the failure to weatherize Texas’ wind generators was a secondary factor in last year’s grid problems), but they continue to produce power as long as they remain in working order, without having to worry about the availability of fuels or water. Some sources of renewable energy – like geothermal energy – are available consistently, all year round. Federal research has shown repeatedly that, with smart planning, investments in the grid, and deployment of energy storage, an electric grid powered primarily by wind and solar energy can meet our energy needs under a variety of conditions and do so 24/7/365.
Taking advantage of our vast renewable energy potential will require investments in the grid to make it more flexible and resilient to shocks. Building out more transmission capacity, repairing and upgrading existing power lines (including by burying them), and using technology to increase the ability of the grid to adapt to changing demands and disruptions will help prevent blackouts, damage and suffering.
The most resilient energy systems, however, are those that are local. Distributed renewable energy systems, like rooftop solar paired with home batteries, can provide power to homes or businesses even when the larger grid goes down. And when linked together into microgrids, distributed energy systems can help whole communities maintain power even when the electric grid is down, while also relieving strain on the overall grid. During the Texas 2021 cold snap, for example, microgrids powered by gas kept the lights on at many essential facilities. But there is increasing movement toward powering microgrids with renewable sources of energy like solar panels equipped with battery storage – freeing them from dependence on fossil fuels.
Battery storage systems can enable homeowners and businesses to keep the lights on, or at least maintain emergency power, even when the grid is down, and can also be used to make solar energy available even after the sun goes down. Even homes without stand-alone batteries might find an unexpected source of energy storage parked in the driveway. Electric vehicles can serve as emergency sources of electricity in a pinch (and stay surprisingly warm in cold weather). Electric vehicles equipped with vehicle-to-building (V2B) or vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology can even use power stored in an electric vehicle’s battery to help power a home, or support the proper functioning of the grid.
Perhaps the best kind of clean energy technology to improve resilience is good old energy efficiency – insulation, weather stripping around windows and doors, and efficient appliances. Energy efficiency allows buildings to remain warm (or cool) longer when power is lost and reduces the stress on the grid at times when it is under strain.
Our nation’s energy systems are going to face even more difficult and unpredictable challenges in the years to come. But a more resilient energy system is possible, and it starts by turning our thinking about energy upside down. Instead of envisioning our energy system from the top-down, we should start from the bottom-up. We need to build comfortable, efficient buildings supplied by local energy sources backed up with distributed energy storage. Those should then be supported by a robust transmission network bringing utility-scale renewable energy from the places where it is generated to the places where it’s needed.
Such a system can be good for resilience, good for consumers, and can even reduce the carbon pollution that is causing global warming.
It’s tempting to call last year’s Texas freeze a wake-up call, but the alarm has been ringing for years. It’s telling us about the vulnerability of our centralized, fossil fuel-based energy system, and it’s time to answer its call. It’s time to finally build the clean and resilient energy system we all deserve.
Image: Round Rock, Texas, during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021. Credit: Roschetzky Photography via Shutterstock, https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/sunrise-over-texas-landscape-covered-white-1931002598