- The crisis in Texas exposed vulnerabilities in America’s energy system.
- Fossil fuels dependence makes our energy systems more vulnerable.
- Local clean energy, efficiency and microgrids can make our energy
system more resilient.
- Johanna Neumann is the senior director of Environment America’s Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Americans across the nation have been watching in horror as frigid conditions have cut power to millions of Texas homes and thrown people into desperate circumstances. They’re now wondering: Could that happen here?
The answer is “yes.” Texas faced a similar winter energy crisis in 2011. Just last year, California cut power to millions of people to prevent wildfires sparked by live power lines. Floods and hurricanes have disrupted power supplies for many Americans in 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 only likely to get worse. In order to prevent a catastrophe, we need to fix three key vulnerabilities in our current system.
First, we’re dependent on too few centralized power plants that produce most of our energy, and we rely on transmission lines to carry it long distances to our homes. Problems with just a few of those power plants or transmission lines can quickly affect millions.
Second, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. The infrastructure we built 30 or 50 years ago 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.
Third, our energy system’s dependence on fossil fuel is adding 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, and it must spur elected officials, regulators and utility companies to build a better and more resilient system.
Preparing for the next Texas-sized disaster
What might a more resilient energy system look like? And how do we make this a reality?
First, US communities need to 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% of the power we generate from fossil fuel power plants is lost through escaped heat and we lose even more when that power has to travel long distances over inefficient lines.
Another way to build energy resilience is to 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.
State leaders could cut energy waste by requiring utilities to hit energy-saving targets by helping their customers use power more wisely. The utilities can use a medley of approaches, including behavioral programs that put smiley faces on the bills of the most efficient customers, rebate programs for efficient appliances such as electric heat-pumps, and giving customers access to free energy audits, weatherization services and low-cost financing.
Paradoxically, even as we produce and store more of our energy locally, we should reinforce our ability to share electricity across the country. Texas’ standalone grid left it unable to receive sufficient help from other parts of the country as its own power plants were going offline. Even the most self-sufficient areas will need to get help sometimes – and that’s what good neighbors do.
From wildfire-ravaged California to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, utility planners are learning from their experiences. They aren’t blindly replacing the same flawed centralized energy systems. Instead, they are deciding to daisy-chain together local microgrids, heavily powered by solar, which 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 the aid of areas that have high demand.
Let’s be clear: improving the resilience of our energy system also requires moving 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 runs on clean energy and keeps the lights on. And, unlike fuels such as gas and coal that are inherently finite, renewable energy sources will always, well, renew.
As 29 million people huddle in the cold in Texas trying to keep warm, governors, state lawmakers, and regulators should pay close attention to what went wrong, and recognize that simply doubling down on the same failed approaches that put the state at risk will only serve to set us up for the next disaster. A cleaner, safer, more resilient energy system is possible. With smart planning and decisions, we can make it a reality.
Johanna Neumann is the senior director of Environment America’s Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy. Environment America is a national network of 29 state environmental groups with members and supporters in every state.