Even as people are suffering through the harshest winter storm Texas has seen in decades, the reasons for the state’s devastating power grid failure have become a political battleground. While vulnerable people freeze in their homes, pundits snipe about whether wind turbines are to blame.
It’s deeply misguided to blame wind power for the blackouts when the state gets about 75% of its power from fossil fuels and nuclear. In reality, the cold weather in Texas froze infrastructure at natural gas, coal and nuclear facilities, as well as wind turbines.
Blaming renewable energy in this catastrophe diverts attention from the broader and more systemic failures that led to this crisis: inadequate planning, disregard for resource adequacy and a focus on lowest possible cost.
This isn’t a renewable energy problem. This is a resilience and planning problem.
The storm in Texas is as big a wake-up call as recent wildfires in California and crippling floods from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Superstorm Sandy in 2011. Climate change will make weather patterns more volatile and extreme — we're in a new climate world. We must examine our infrastructure, expose its weakest links and act now to make systems-level investments.
So, what can be done to make sure the devastation happening in Texas doesn’t happen again, in that state or anywhere else?
Here are five ways to make our energy systems more resilient so they can withstand extreme weather events in the future:
1. Protect Power Generation and Fuel Supplies
The extreme cold in Texas disrupted all types of power plants. Most importantly, it reduced supplies of natural gas. Previous cold weather events showed the infrastructure was vulnerable, but Texas officials did not make investments to improve its resilience. For example, gas plants in Texas don’t have ice protection. The state has wind turbines, but those aren’t winterized the way they would be in the upper great plains or Canada. These are the types of investments that can keep the power on, thereby saving lives and avoiding millions of dollars in economic damages from outages.
2. Expand the Grid and its Interconnection
An interconnected grid can move power to where it is needed most. As of February 17, roughly 46 gigawatts — about 55% of total installed capacity — was offline in Texas. If there were long-distance transmission lines linked to outside power pools, Texas companies would have been able to import more power from out of state. Unless there are new investments in transmission infrastructure for moving large amounts of power from one place to another, the grid won’t be resilient.
3. Rethink Market Design and Resource Adequacy
Texas is one of seven states or regions that have partially deregulated power generation. In those markets, companies that generate electricity can compete with one another. In every other state or region, however, market operators have specific mechanisms aimed at ensuring “resource adequacy,” meaning that there’s enough energy available 24/7, 365 days per year, to meet the demand. These mechanisms typically provide payments for capacity or require that the distribution utilities each ensure provision of a specified share of the overall system's peak demand. However, Texas is the only state or region to rely almost entirely on price to achieve resource adequacy. In this case, price is the main lever to encourage investments in sufficient new generating capacity. When supplies are short, Texas allows prices to rise high enough to reduce demand, subject to a very high cap of $9,000 per megawatt-hour. A more effective mechanism for resource adequacy is a critical feature of a resilient system.
4. Create Multi-day Energy Storage Systems
Energy storage can play a role in system resilience, but we need technologies that can address extreme weather events. Current batteries, which are being deployed rapidly today, provide only hours of energy storage. That doesn’t address prolonged power outages. It is possible, though, to expand that storage capacity to days. To do so, we need research investments in and commercialization to bring them to market (see this WRI report published in September). Now is the time for the government and the private sector to collaborate to develop workable options for longer-term storage.
5. Modernize Buildings, Infrastructure and Technology
It’s time to update our building energy codes. In Texas, out-of-date codes create a significantly higher demand for heating and electricity in both existing and new buildings. Energy retrofits to upgrade windows and insulation and rebates for efficient appliances will benefit customers and reduce peak demand in both summer and winter. Demand response and smart buildings can be part of a modern energy system.
This crisis in Texas and other Southern states is tragic for the people living there, many of whom have lost heat and access to clean water. But this will happen again. Extreme weather patterns will continue to emerge as the threat of climate change grows, even in places like Texas where serious winter storms are rare.
Clean energy, which emits no greenhouse gases, can help us reduce our long-term risk. Investment in efficient, resilient energy system infrastructure and planning will help us manage the weather and climate impacts we already face. These changes, urgently needed, will help save lives, both now and in the future.