The Texas Power Outages Were A “Wake-Up Call” Only Because Decisionmakers Everywhere Keep Hitting Snooze

March 16, 2021 | 3:29 pm
Jonathan Cutrer/Flickr
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

This February, a deep and sustained chill sent the Texas energy system into a week-long torpor, which set off a series of cascading failures that were devastating and deadly in their effect.

Everybody wants to know how in the world something like this came to pass.

But despite rapid and confident finger pointing, each additional data point gleaned yields an ever-fuller conception of just how tangled and multi-faceted this failure was. From collapsing thermal generation to surging residential demand, gas-electric interdependencies to electricity cut-offs, energy-only markets to an isolated grid – it all played a part, and it all needs a fix. And, yes: so much about how Texas works made all of this worse.

The proximate cause, however, was not, in fact, unique to Texas at all.

It was, as it has been time and again, the abject failure of policymakers and the energy industry to heed countless warnings and countless disasters, allowing our energy system to remain completely unprepared for the challenges coming its way and the staggering and deeply inequitable toll on the people left bearing those costs.

Indeed, what happened in Texas was a failing that has been too many times repeated before, all across the country; what happened in Texas was a failing that will be too many times repeated again.

And again.

And again.

Unless and until we finally move to get it right.

Of course, for the too many who died, the too many who suffered, the too many left dealing with the rippling costs and consequences for too many years to come—all and each avoidable given the knowledge and tools known and knowable—we are already far beyond the time to get it right.

But for the rest, before the next: it’s time to get it right.

Which means the concomitant advancement of these three things: clean energy transition to mitigate climate impacts, infrastructure investment to prepare for climate impacts, and operations and oversight that put the needs of people first.

And then, of course, there’s this: accountability.

Because we should not allow for decisionmakers to describe one more extreme-weather outage as a “wake-up call.” The radio has been blaring the truth for so long now. What will it take for the people in power to stop hitting snooze?

Wake up, and own up: decisionmakers have been sleeping on the job, and people are paying the price. It’s time to get it right.

The costs of a static power grid in a dynamic world

As a sprawling machine linking parts and pieces through strung-up wires crisscrossing the nation, our electricity system is a modern marvel.

It has also been a source of power outages for as long as electricity has zipped along its lines.

But three points make today’s grid operations distinctly different from the past:

  1. Infrastructure underinvestment. The power grid is now in a staggering state of disrepair. Chronic underinvestment has led to system-wide vulnerabilities. It is all too easy to break that which is already broken.
  2. Climate change. Shifts in the day to day, and in the extremes, mean that the world in which the grid is operating—and the world in which the grid is used—is increasingly disparate from that for which it was designed and planned. At the same time, to mitigate the magnitude of those impacts to come, the power sector is also rapidly shifting the ways in which electricity is generated and used.
  3. Electricity as a critical service—and a human right. Electricity has evolved from nice to have to essential, in both the day-to-day and in disasters. It is itself critical infrastructure, as well as the foundation upon which multiple other critical infrastructures rely, and its loss can quickly escalate from a nuisance to a catastrophe all its own.

These overlapping threats and vulnerabilities play off one another in deeply consequential ways, each making the impacts of the others more severe. Which means that far too often, instead of it being the triggering event—the extreme cold, the hurricane, the wildfire, the heatwave, the flood—that is the foremost disaster in a community, it’s the long-lasting power outages and the cascading failures that stem from them that become a whole other disaster unto themselves.

Losses of water supply, water treatment, communications, refrigeration; crippled life-saving heating or cooling; broken gas-electricity system feedbacks; evacuated hospitals; industrial releases of chemicals and toxics—each a disaster linking back to those first failures at the start. And each too often borne by those least able to bear them.

We need a grid that’s designed to get it right. That’s clean, that’s reliable, that’s affordable, that’s resilient.

Boosting grid resilience

What is electricity resilience?

For the grid, it’s this: moving beyond a singular focus of preventing outages – which, yes, of course still key, and critical to improve – to prioritizing the limiting of impact, by layering on considerations of how to lessen the scope and shorten the duration of an event should an outage occur, as well as how to incorporate learning and improvement in the aftermath. This requires proactive planning, improved situational awareness before and during triggering events, and investments in infrastructure that inject flexibility into that which for so long has been brittle.

However, electricity resilience isn’t just about the broader grid. It’s about communities, too.

Because even under an improved approach, the power grid will still go down. Not as much, for not as many, and for far less long, but still: it will. And when it does, it’s critically important that communities maintain a way to access electricity, too.

How? On the one hand, through things like intentionally increasing local clean energy generation, energy storage, and microgrids. And on the other, simultaneously improving the efficiency and weatherization of homes such that people are best equipped to safely ride through a prolonged power outage regardless of the conditions outside. This is a particular priority for those disproportionately burdened by such extreme weather events, who cannot feasibly evacuate when an outage occurs nor bear the costs and consequences from the long-lasting outages that ensue.

Critically, bottom-up resilience doesn’t just help communities; it improves overall system performance, too. With flexible loads and energy efficiency and local generation, communities can help ease the strain on the broader grid precisely when the grid is itself most stressed.

For all of this, for every aspect of resilience, the very first step is to plan. To prompt the evaluation of the world as it now is, and how it will soon be. To understand the impacts of those changes on system operations, and on system use. To test, and test, and test, to reveal new exposures, to understand heightened vulnerabilities, to know where next to look. And then to begin to adapt.

Because only after a plan is in place can every subsequent investment intentionally flow to boosting the resilience of the grid. Before that, avoidance might seem cheaper on the front, but it will be way, way costlier on the back.

We need that resilient grid. We need that plan in place.

And here, the key: accountability.

Decisionmakers must commit to seeing a shift to this resilience framework through; without that requirement, the default defaults to faltering along.

But change will not come in an instant.

True commitment to bridging the resilience gap is demonstrated not by simply the naming the need for change, nor in undertaking a rash of reactionary firings, nor in misplaced blaming of a few bit players along the way, but in real and true follow-through. In the steady and sustained continued toiling for change.

Voters know the difference. And they can demand accountability, too.

Build back better

With the new administration racing to confront climate change straight out the gates, our nation seems to be on the cusp of seeing, really seeing, our changing climate as it is, as opposed to how we long knew it to be.

With that sight will come hard insights, but better the challenge of reckoning with reality than reckoning with the implications of denying what is and what will be.

Decisionmakers must at once commit to tackling climate change, to tackling infrastructure impacts, and to putting the needs of people first, not last.

Every investment this nation makes, every operations plan it creates, must account for the world we’re in and for the world where we’ll soon be. Because until we do, of course this will happen again, of course it will, as it already has too many times before.

Reality always, always catches up. Texas once more reminded us of the devastating consequences of repeatedly hitting snooze.

Wake up, decisionmakers. You’re overdue.