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When Seeking Solutions to Texas Winter Outages, Look to Residents for Lessons

The winter storm that slammed into Texas laid bare our need to prepare for extreme climate events to ensure better outcomes for our neighbors and communities.

People wait in a long line to buy groceries at H-E-B in Austin, Texas, Feb. 16, 2021 during an extreme cold snap and widespread power outage. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas' power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Texas experienced one of the most devastating winter storms in recent history. It left millions of people without basic necessities like power, water, and food in freezing temperatures for days. The extreme weather tragically caused loss of life and billions of dollars in damage and economic loss. 

The storm in Texas laid bare the fragility of our infrastructure in the face of extreme climate events and also the need for more proactive steps to ensure we are better prepared. A sustained cold weather event may be unique for Texas, but it presents the state with a challenge — how do we ensure both resiliency and affordability of the state’s power sector at the same time? Looking at the stories of ordinary residents in Texas may offer a few lessons that state and federal lawmakers can take away.

Take extreme events seriously, and invest up front in preparing for the worst.

Texas residents who heeded the warnings of extreme weather took time and energy to wrap outdoor pipes, seal windows and doors, and drain sprinkler systems that might be susceptible to freezing. Many prepared by purchasing generators or space heaters. Residents who did these things most likely fared better than those who did not prepare. While these investments of time, energy, and resources may have been expensive at the time, they paid off when the storm shut down power and water access, burst pipes, and wreaked devastation upon the region for days. 

Leonel Solis and Estefani Garcia use their car to heat their home in Dallas on Feb. 17, 2021. The couple, who lost power, used electricity from a neighbor's generator and heat from their car to stay warm after seeing it on TikTok. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Individual household preparedness is important, but it is also woefully inadequate on its own. There are two reasons for this. First, while many can afford these expenses, there are also millions of residents in Texas who do not have the means or ability to protect themselves. These are our most vulnerable neighbors: at-risk children, the elderly, the homeless, and those who are struggling to make ends meet. Second, protecting one’s home adequately does nothing for the broader electrical grid, which is maintained by many other actors — many of whom are now pointing fingers at each other for failing to prepare. 

The state has a role to play when it comes to preparedness. In 2011, ERCOT, the state’s grid operator, was warned that it was vulnerable to these kinds of events. The state had a decade to prepare by either weatherizing the power infrastructure, strengthening connections to grid regions outside of Texas, or both. The state did none of these things. This was an expensive mistake. The economic fallout from last week’s storms will dwarf any amount of up-front investment that could have been made in the previous decade. Investments made up front are akin to an insurance premium providing the state with peace of mind when another catastrophic event occurs. One needs to look no further than the state’s own residents to understand this lesson. Looking ahead, the real question is how much the state should invest and what level of resilience should be the goal, with the understanding that absolute reliability is both prohibitively expensive and likely impossible.

Energy Innovation Opens up New Possibilities.

Some Texas residents survived the winter storm relatively unscathed because they were able to deploy new technologies. Hybrid vehicles, acting as back-up generators, provided some residents with enough power to run space heaters, refrigerators, and lights for days. Others used home battery technologies, such as the Tesla Powerwall, to keep the lights and heaters on. These residents reaped the benefits of being early adopters of new energy technology.

Government has an important role to play in accelerating the development, commercialization, and adoption of these new technologies. At the end of last year, the federal government passed the Energy Act of 2020, the most significant energy legislation we’ve seen in over a decade. The bill includes investments in clean energy innovations for natural gas, nuclear energy, carbon capture, energy storage, hydropower, direct air capture, fusion and other technologies. Some of these technologies, such as advanced nuclear and fusion, long-duration non-pumped hydro storage, and enhanced geothermal systems could be described as ultra-resilient in the face of extreme weather conditions. The Energy Act represents the most comprehensive measure to date to ensure investment in clean energy, and the act needs to be implemented without delay as originally designed.

Congress should also pass a bipartisan bill sponsored by Ways and Means, Reps. Tom Reed (R-NY) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) called the Energy Sector Innovation Credit. The bill would update the energy portion of the tax code by allowing cutting-edge technologies to gain commercial viability and upend the status quo while allowing for power-sector planners to make decisions locally and in the interest of their consumers.

The Climate Change vs. Renewables Debate is Noise.

When the snowstorm struck Texas, some Republicans were quick to point fingers at frozen windmills, blaming renewable energy sources, and Democrats were quick to point to climate change as the cause. All of this is noise. 

While some windmills did freeze, every other power generation source (solar, natural gas, coal, and even nuclear) all suffered significant outages as well. The problem was not with one particular energy technology, it was a failure to weatherize all of them sufficiently. The left’s cries that the winter storm was evidence of climate change is also overstating the science, which remains relatively inconclusive about the connection of extreme cold events and climate change. That’s not to say climate change isn’t real. It just means we don’t know definitively whether climate change causes extreme winter storms.

Here’s what we do know. The scientific community has concluded that climate change is real and that it is likely increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, particularly things like flooding and extreme heat (something people in Texas know a little about). All things being equal, to reduce the extremity and frequency of these events, less emissions in the air is better than more. Many utility companies already understand this. Georgia-based Southern Company, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, and Michigan-based DTE have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Several states have also introduced aggressive zero-emission targets also known as clean energy standards, this includes base load power sources like nuclear fuels, which currently provides about half of the zero-emission energy in the country. The Federal government can also support the promotion of a national clean energy standard.

Here’s the thing. Even if you don’t buy the science of climate change, the two lessons above apply. Preparing ahead is almost always better than dealing with the tragic loss of life, property, and other economic damage we see around us today. And investing in the development, commercialization, and adoption of new energy technologies opens up new ways to build a more resilient and safer power grid. A broader transition towards a zero-emission future, led by the private sector and state governments, provides the backdrop upon which policymakers will be considering and implementing these trade-off decisions.

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