The Texas crisis is tragic and familiar. News from the Lone Star state – widespread outages, carbon monoxide poisoning deaths, and stressed health facilities – mirror those that followed Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In both cases, a crisis arose after an energy system that was dependent on large, centralized power plants was rendered inoperable after a climate catastrophe.
Some blame natural gas or wind turbines as the cause of the devastating system-wide failure. Certainly a gas system ill-equipped for such freezing temperatures was a major problem as demand increased. Regardless of how the electricity is generated, grids around large power plants have repeatedly failed in climate crises. Centralized power generation is not the way to build a resilient electrical system.
What is the solution? Decentralize the network. Local energy resources – mainly solar photovoltaics paired with battery storage (solar + storage) – could help stabilize the Texas power grid by responding to bottlenecks in the energy supply and creating pockets of energy resilience. Small solar and storage systems installed in households and community facilities could support public health and save lives, especially among vulnerable populations.
With temperatures remaining freezing and electricity unreliable, the situation in Texas quickly deteriorated into a public health emergency. Widespread failures put a strain on health services and forced many community facilities to close. Vulnerable residents had fewer places to turn when on-site protection was no longer a safe option. Some areas have been warned that it could take days for electricity to be restored.
Medically vulnerable residents who rely on electricity to power medical devices have had to choose between staying home or hoping the electricity comes back, or venturing out into the cold during a pandemic. For those with limited mobility or transportation, choices were even more limited: wait or call an ambulance. Local resilient and reliable energy systems that are operated with Solar + storage could relieve the municipalities during these crises.
Tragically, desperate households accidentally poisoned each other to keep warm. The residents ran diesel generators or gas grills indoors or left their stoves on. More than 300 carbon monoxide poisoning cases were recorded in one county – one hospital reported that half of the carbon monoxide patients were children. Several deaths have been reported.
The COVID vaccination effort was affected. A CVS had to reschedule appointments when a power outage caused the store to close. In Harris County, more than 8,000 doses had to be administered quickly after thawing due to a power outage. In this case, healthcare providers were primed with a backup generator but it failed. Fortunately, officials were able to make sure that no dose was wasted. There is no such guarantee of future failure.
It is clear that it is time to rethink the energy system.
Solar + storage can reduce the burden on public health and first aiders by ensuring that vulnerable populations have access to safe and reliable backup power. Strategic solar and storage systems in community centers, health clinics, schools and retirement homes can supply emergency resource centers for residents with electricity. Medically endangered households with solar and storage systems for private households can continue to supply light, cooling for medicines and sockets for medical devices with electricity without fear of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Texas power crisis has also created economic difficulties for many households. In some communities, demand resulted in natural gas prices being 10 to 100 times higher than normal. A resident expects an electricity bill for more than $ 10,000. For low-income residents who are already paying a higher percentage of their wages for utility bills, an increase in electricity bills can be financially insurmountable. Solar + distributed storage could help reduce the demand for energy resources, curb rampant price increases, and generate savings if the grid is functioning properly.
Decentralization won't happen overnight, but Texas can learn from successful efforts in other states. For example, in the Northeast, a battery storage incentive program called ConnectedSolutions is using Energy Efficiency Fund to encourage battery storage uptake through a pay-for-performance demand-response model. This means that as demand increases, utility companies can use hundreds or even thousands of batteries in households, businesses and municipal facilities to power the grid. The program creates a consistent value stream for system owners and provides a valuable service for the grid. In Texas, a similar program could have helped fill the energy supply void that crashed the grid.
Incentives can be targeted towards those who need them most. In California, the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) is graduated to provide greater incentives to battery storage for low-income households, households with medically vulnerable residents, and facilities in disadvantaged communities. Battery storage discounts for people who live in communities with a high risk of forest fires or who operate facilities that are prone to outages and power outages can generally receive a battery free of charge.
As Texas recovers from the current disaster, it can help prevent the next. The state is likely to receive assistance from Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) to help with disaster recovery. Part of these funds can be used to improve energy resilience through the development of decentralized local solar and storage resources. In Puerto Rico, CDBG-DR funds are being used to pay for Solar + storage systems for homes at risk.
There may not be a safe way to turn lights on during a disaster, but communities shouldn't be left in the dark because of outdated energy infrastructure. Texans would benefit from a robust, decentralized energy system powered by Solar + storage in households, community facilities and businesses. The diversification and decentralization of the network is a very real and possible goal. The technology exists. Texas just has to take the plunge.
Marriele Mango is a project leader at Clean Energy Group, where she manages technical support and capacity-building programs to help develop solar and battery storage projects that benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. Seth Mullendore is Vice President and Project Leader for the Clean Energy Group, where he leads projects ranging from advancing custom solar and battery storage in underserved communities to replacing power plants with clean technologies.