The February storm of last year highlighted significant flaws in Texas’ electric grid. This could have been avoided if state regulators had listened to the warnings made by experts after the 2011 Groundhog Day snowstorm.
Instead of installing weatherization upgrades to avoid widespread weather-induced power cuts, the state kept going as normal. It was therefore not surprising that Texas suffered a catastrophic grid failure in 2021. This led to more than 200 deaths, record-breaking electricity bills, and millions in damages.
Are Texas residents likely to feel déjà vu with yet another snowstorm brewing in the Lone Star State? Or did state regulators do enough for Texas to keep the lights on and their homes warm?
Weather And Legislation Can Have A Less Negative Impact On Texans
This storm is unlikely to be as destructive as last year. Two reasons are why. One, the storm isn’t expected to be as severe. In some areas of Texas, temperatures dropped to below zero in 2021. However, the current forecast shows that temperatures will settle in the teens.
Another positive sign for Texas is the fact that, after last year’s hurricane, the legislatures made some changes to the grid to make it more resilient to cold weather (unlike in 2011). One of the most important of these changes was a rule that the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT), approved in October 2021. It required power companies to prepare for winter weather events by December 1st, 2021.
ERCOT, the nonprofit organization responsible for the state’s grid, attempted to address skyrocketing electricity prices by limiting wholesale electricity sales to $5,000 per megawatt-hour (MWh). Wholesale energy sold for $9,000 per megawatt-hour during the storm, as opposed to $50 per MWh, which in some cases drove up homeowners’ utility bills to more than 70 times what they would normally pay.
Did Legislatures Do Enough?
After signing more than a dozen pieces of legislation targeting the grid, Governor Abbott was quoted as saying that “everything needed to be done was done in Texas to fix the power grid” and that he “can ensure that the lights will remain on” this winter.
Given that the storm has already caused 75,000 residents to lose power, we can’t help but take Governor Abbott’s statements with a grain. A year and a few pieces of legislation won’t fix all the issues that caused $130 Billion in damage and 210 deaths.
However, there are still some very serious issues with Texas’ grid. These have to do both with the availability and demand for natural gas.
Natural Gas Is Still Vulnerable To Problems
While it is great that power plants are weathered, natural gas production and delivery infrastructure have not been. Gas companies are not required to weatherize their gas plants until 2023. This is a significant problem considering almost half of Texas’ electricity comes from natural gas.
Last month, natural gas production dropped by 25% after several natural gas companies reported that they had to flare off gas due to frozen equipment during a cold storm. Although there were no major outages, it raises a concern: If natural gas companies are unable to withstand a cold snap how can they expect to be able to operate reliably during a full-blown winter storm?
Energy Efficiency Issues Remain Unsolved
The state government has only addressed the supply side of the outage problem. While it is important that power plants are able to continue to operate, Texas could have done more to reduce demand.
Promoting energy efficiency improvements is one way to achieve this. Texas is one of the least efficient states in America. Texas houses aren’t designed to withstand cold temperatures. They’re poorly insulated, and use inefficient heaters. This leads to heat loss and very high electricity demand.
Texas could have dealt with this issue in many ways. It could have offered energy efficiency rebates to lower the cost of replacing power-hungry appliances or incentives for home insulation. Instead, the state chose to ignore the whole story of what caused the grid to go down.
Storage and solar could be the end of the tunnel
It is clear that Texas’ dependence on one fuel source is not ideal. Natural gas remains a problem. It is possible to meet the power demand by encouraging large-scale, renewable energy generation, whether it be solar or wind, and integrating it with energy storage.
It doesn’t end there. Distributed solar generation can be a powerful tool to strengthen Texas’ grid and keep the power on at homes across the state.
Homeowners can feel secure knowing that they will have reliable backup power in the event of a winter storm that causes the grid to shut down. In addition to lowering grid demand, homeowners can also use solar energy from their roofs and store it in their batteries. It’s less likely that power plants will need to close down if there is less pressure on the grid.
Installing solar will bring another benefit to Texans. It provides all of these benefits, plus more, beyond the winter months. The homeowner demand for solar-plus-storage is reduced throughout the year. This is a big plus for power plants.
Solar and storage reduce electric bills so solar homeowners don’t have to worry about rising electricity prices due to winter weather events. They have backup power, stable pricing, security, and peace of mind.
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