Energy, Resilience and Texas

It was a Tuesday morning when I realized how dangerous our situation had become. Waking in my family’s home in the Texas Hill Country, I saw my breath puff in the air as my phone’s weather app read 7 degrees. Twelve hours into the cold snap last month that brought 21st century Texas to its knees, our lights were still out, our furnace frigid, the faucets dry.

That Wednesday, as friends just 20 miles away in San Antonio texted their relief at avoiding any outages, we collected trickles of snowmelt from our roof for water. Nearing Thursday, with temperatures rising no higher than the low 20s, my wife began slurring her words from hypothermia; the texts she sent to friends became incomprehensible. I spent hours each day chopping wood for heat or trying to find dry wood — much of the wood on our property wet from the ice storm that had preceded the dramatic drop in temperatures.

Just 72 hours earlier, we’d been living in 2021. Until power was restored for most Texans that Friday, Feb. 19, it might as well have been 1891 — 4 million people without power, 12 million without water, an untold number without heat.

Dozens died, and the final toll continues to rise. Thousands who seemed to avert the worst aspects of the deep freeze now face five-figure electricity bills — merely for keeping the lights on and their homes warm. The financial devastation is on track to rival that of Hurricane Harvey or Super Storm Sandy.

And this catastrophe was utterly avoidable.

I have spent nearly a decade building expertise in Texas’ energy sector — from oil and gas to geothermal, solar, energy storage and next-generation mobility. My shock at the rapid collapse of the state’s grid is difficult to overstate — my consulting firm is named “Resilience Energy.” This is what us Texans can muster for resilience?

Let’s start with what we know: The state’s grid failed because 29,000 megawatts of natural gas, coal, and to a lesser extent, nuclear generation — together roughly 85 percent of the state’s total electricity mix — abruptly tripped offline in the deep freeze. Natural gas plants and pipelines, which provide the bulk of the state’s electricity supply, experienced by far the biggest failure, state officials say.

There are myriad reasons: Liquid inside natural gas pipelines, wells and other infrastructure froze. Ahead of the crisis, even as meteorologists forecast the freeze, some 4 gigawatts of power remained offline for seasonal maintenance — and regulators lacked the authority to force it back online. Downtown offices, lacking smart infrastructure, continued to consume desperately needed gas and electricity, even as the buildings sat empty.

In short, renewable energy — despite what some have falsely claimed — did not cause the state’s energy crisis. Though renewable energy resources — namely solar and wind — were hampered by the cold, they make up a fraction of the Texas electric grid. Wind, in fact, proved one of the most resilient energy sectors, recovering more quickly than most other generators in the state.

And let’s be clear about my perspective: I am a conservative, a veteran and a native Texan. I have spent many years working closely with the fossil energy industry and am a pragmatic believer in an all-of-the-above energy portfolio. I am not saying we need to abandon centralized power production, but we do need to recognize that creating resilient energy systems requires 21st-century approaches.

So what can we do? Most commentators have been focusing on the state’s centralized resources: winterizing coal- and gas-fired power plants and oil and gas pipelines, building more generation, giving regulators the authority to force idled power plants online — many of the same recommendations from the last deep-freeze in 2011.

Winterization makes sense. So, too, does new authority for regulators. But the reason we’ve seen fossil fuel interests and their allies in Austin spend so much time demonizing clean energy and cleantech is, I wager, because they’re scared: Building new centralized power plants may promise oodles of new money for the same old energy tycoons, but efficiently expanding the state’s clean, distributed resources is by far the best way to harden our grid.

Inexpensive smart meters, for example, could have enabled grid operators to reroute electricity from empty offices to the neighborhoods sorely in need of electricity. Smart thermostats and water heaters — aggregated together — could have provided vital electrons to the grid. Neighborhood microgrids — powered by rooftop solar panels and community solar arrays, buttressed by battery backup systems — could have generated electricity when the broader grid failed. Texas is sitting on 20,000-plus megawatts of untapped geothermal power — enough to supply 18 million homes. Even winterizing millions of customers’ homes — hardly a sexy proposal — would prove far more efficient than building a new power plant.

Of course, none of these proposals would bring grid operators or fossil fuel companies anywhere close the income of a new power plant. Shale driller Comstock Resources CFO Ronald Burns last month cheered the state’s surging energy prices as “hitting the jackpot,” even as millions shivered at home.

As we wait for the final death toll from this tragedy, we’ll soon see the amount of corporate profit — and political donations — per life lost, any one of which could have been my wife as she fought off hypothermia, or one of my three daughters.

The weather was unavoidable, but the widespread grid collapse, the pain and suffering and the failure of leadership were not. Texas has long been an energy innovator — instead of pointing fingers, it’s long past time for our politicians, our regulators and our power providers to channel their energy and their dollars into taking the steps we truly need to prevent another disaster.

James Jackson is an energy resilience consultant, whose clients have included Eavor Technologies, BEAM Global, and Shell New Energies; he is chairman of the board of the Clean Energy Business Network.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult