By Landon Stevens
Last month dozens of people died and millions were left in the dark as historic winter storm Uri hit Texas and the Southern United States. Immediately upon hearing of blackouts sweeping across large swaths of Texas, vocal proponents on both sides of the all-too-politicized energy debate took to social media to point fingers and cast blame.
On one side, fossil fuel advocates highlighted frozen wind turbines as a symbol of clean energy’s failure. On the flip side, supporters of wind and solar pointed out that numerous fossil fuel plants were shuttered when the cold snap stalled fuel deliveries or impacted power plants directly.
While it would be nice to be able to identify a single point of failure, isolate it, and address it moving forward – the truth is that today’s power systems are too complex, too integrated, and too vast to allow for such an analysis.
We all need to recognize that there are multiple issues at play and, unfortunately, the honest answer is that last month in Texas the system as a whole failed. Fixing it and securing it against future threats is also going to be a vast, complex, integrated effort, requiring an ‘all of the above’ approach.
If anything, this episode has shown us that ‘all of the above’ should not be considered a mere political platitude. Instead, it should be a guiding principle of energy policy across this country moving forward. When most people think of ‘all of the above’ they think of some formula that calls for both fossil fuels and renewables. However, that definition is too narrow.
What we need is a mix of not only fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydropower to provide baseload energy, but also a healthy dose of low-cost, geographically distributed renewables. The grid of the future demands more. We will also need to focus on things like carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage in all forms, next generation demand-side management systems, and responsible energy efficiency programs.
Emerging generation technologies like hydrogen, small modular nuclear reactors, community solar, and aggregated distributed resources will have a role in the future grid as well. Perhaps most importantly, competitive market structures that roll back monopoly utility powers and empower customers to choose their energy experience must be implemented.
Any reasonable response to tragic energy failures like those in Texas will include a full-scale audit and inventory of energy infrastructure. A grid resilient enough to withstand extreme weather events while furthering state and federal energy priorities will need physical infrastructure improvements like pipelines and transmission resources as well as the digital backbone of granular data and networked monitoring and demand-side management tools.
When we say ‘all of the above’, we mean it. Unfortunately, the recent events in Texas have shown just how much work is needed to make an ‘all of the above’ energy system a reality. Using a crisis like this to point political fingers and spout half-truths is not helpful. Instead, let’s evaluate the flaws in the system as a whole, identify solutions, technologies, and reforms to address the shortcomings, empower markets to incentivize the needed changes, and move forward together.