One major contributor to the Texas blackouts: inefficient homes


This op-ed is part of a series published by The Dallas Morning News Opinion section to explore ideas and policies for strengthening electric reliability. Find the full series here: Keeping the Lights On.

The February blackouts gave Texans a clear view of our state’s energy system. Texas legislators still haven’t come to grips with it.

In the freezing early hours of Feb. 15, inefficient heaters gulped electricity to keep homes and buildings warm, and Texas’ energy use was headed for an all-time record. Yes, gas supplies froze and generators went dark, but beyond those failures, poorly insulated homes and buildings were on a pace to draw more power from the electricity grid than Texas has ever used, even on its hottest day.

In the weeks since, legislators have focused on issues like power plant weatherization, emergency communications, and oversight. Without question, such solutions are needed. But they won’t likely prevent a future crisis by themselves.

To protect Texans, legislators need to pass solutions far closer to home. By helping Texans reduce energy use and their energy bills, the state can help prevent blackouts and prepare for future climate-driven weather emergencies.

Demand-side solutions generally fall into three buckets: energy efficiency, local power sources, and demand response.

Energy efficiency

Texas’ buildings waste a massive amount of energy. Two-thirds of our homes predate a statewide building code and lack adequate insulation. That’s one reason that more than 100 Texans died of hypothermia during the blackouts.

Among the 28 states that have adopted an energy efficiency goal, Texas ranks last in the amount of energy it saves. Had we just been average over the past 20-plus years, Texas’ outages would have been 40% less severe.

The Legislature should quickly set more ambitious goals for market-driven energy efficiency programs, starting with insulation and efficient electric heat pumps.

Doing so would be a powerful job creator: Texas had nearly 170,000 energy efficiency jobs before the start of the pandemic, according to the Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance.

And it would put money in Texans’ pockets through lower electricity bills.

Local electricity

Technology lets Texans create their own electricity through rooftop solar power and store it in batteries. The cost of batteries has dropped nearly 90% over the last decade. Solar energy systems have become vastly more affordable as well. These distributed energy resources could have helped more homeowners and families keep the lights on through the storm.

Local sources also can, and should, power hospitals, communications towers, shelters and water treatment plants. Such critical infrastructure should be on microgrids — self-contained power systems that are connected to the grid in normal conditions and self-sufficient during outages.

Demand response

Retail electric providers can also work with home and building owners to manage their electricity consumption during an emergency. Rather than pleading for conservation through the media, electricity providers can pay homeowners to install technology that automatically reduces electricity use when supplies tighten. Often, providers could simply cycle off equipment in a way that people don’t even notice.

Texas already has some demand-response systems in place. Large energy companies negotiate plans with their electricity providers that pay them to reduce electricity use during emergencies, and the regulators blast out conservation pleas when Texas needs power. The Legislature should formalize these programs, make the benefits available to more people, and use technology to bring them into the 21st century.

All of these solutions cost money, obviously. Legislators should tap the creativity of the Texas free market, which has been the source of so many world-leading energy innovations over the years. Simply by setting goals and working with service providers, the state can kick-start the market for innovative demand response, local electricity and energy efficiency solutions — and avoid future blackouts in the process.

Texas has not seen the last of these kinds of extreme weather events, especially as climate change takes root. Legislators should take action — now, this year — to weatherize homes and buildings, increase the resilience of critical infrastructure, and harness savings through demand response. That bold action will increase reliability and help Texans prepare for the future.

Doug Lewin is an independent energy consultant with Stoic Energy. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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