How the U.S. can keep the power on during extreme weather

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A brutal winter storm knocked out power for millions of people in Texas last week, forcing residents across the state to suffer through days of frigid weather without heat or electricity.

The specific causes of the disaster in Texas are complex. They include everything from frozen gas lines to unexpected power demand to the state’s uniquely isolated electric grid. But experts say the blackout is also part of a much broader problem: U.S. power systems that have proven incapable of holding up to extreme weather.

Texas is by no means alone in seeing its power systems collapse under demanding conditions. Parts of California experienced blackouts last summer amid a record-setting heat wave. The state’s utilities have also begun deliberately shutting off electricity during high-wind events to avoid wildfires sparked by downed power lines. Powerful storms regularly knock out electricity across the country. Over the past 20 years, extreme weather has been the root cause of two-thirds of major power outages in the U.S., according to one analysis.

As the past week in Texas has shown, these blackouts can have devastating consequences. As many as 70 deaths have been attributed to the freezing temperatures. The economic cost could run into the billions of dollars, one estimate found.

Why there’s debate

America’s sprawling and diverse terrain means that the details of any energy resilience plan will vary by region, but there are some general principles that experts say can apply in every part of the country. One of the most commonly cited is the need to assume that previously unheard of weather events will eventually happen — whether it’s unprecedented heat, heavy winds or powerful storms. Texas, for example, built its power grid to endure high demand during heat waves. The state’s energy infrastructure lacked many of the cold weather defenses that help keep power flowing during the winter in areas that are used to frigid winters.

The Texas blackout also shows the risks of having a large, isolated grid that isn’t able to receive power from other areas of the country during down periods. Some energy experts believe creating a unified national grid — supported by emerging technologies that allow for more efficient power transmission and storage — could help avoid catastrophes when one part of the country is experiencing extreme climate. Improved means of sharing power will also be necessary as the U.S. transitions to green energy sources like wind and solar, which can see production levels vary significantly based on the weather, experts say.

Before any technical solutions can be put in place, the U.S. first must make a commitment to fortifying its power grid in response to increasingly extreme weather. Scientists are split on whether climate change is responsible for winter storms like the one that hit Texas. But many are disappointed to see the blackout quickly fall into the same mess of politics and business interests that often stand in the way of progress on climate issues.

What’s next

Once Congress passes the next coronavirus stimulus package, President Biden appears to be planning to make a massive infrastructure spending bill his next legislative priority. The details of the proposal are still being sorted out, but Biden is expected to push for a major investment in green energy to be included in the plan.

Perspectives

Energy systems must be built to withstand unprecedented weather

“The changing climate means the past is no longer a guide to the future. The entire country must get much better at preparing for — and insuring against — the unexpected.” — Jesse Jenkins, New York Times

Politics and lobbying groups can’t be allowed to hold back necessary reforms

“The United States’ patchwork energy quilt will need dramatic reform to meet the challenges of both decarbonization and the extreme weather ahead. And unfortunately, the political response to Texas’s crisis so far shows how hard fossil fuel interests will fight to keep the current system in place.” — Kate Aronoff, New Republic

Strong regulations are needed to ensure that energy systems are resilient

“States whose power grids survive the cold have utilities that operate in a regulated environment that ensures the providers do what’s right for the entire state — individuals and businesses — versus what’s best for a small handful of energy producers financing statewide political careers.” — Editorial, Las Vegas Sun

New battery technologies can provide a backup for when production breaks down

“Another emerging option could ensure reliability without forcing the U.S. to revert to coal, gas and other carbon-intensive energy sources that contribute to climate change: energy storage, in which electricity from renewable sources can be stockpiled and then released onto the grid when it is needed.” — Josh Lederman, NBC News

Fixing the power grid starts with acknowledging the massive scale of the problem

“The cascade of failures in Texas signals what is perhaps the greatest challenge ahead in this climate-changed world: accepting that business as usual isn’t working. Across the planet, humans have built civilization to withstand the vagaries of a 20th century climate. The extreme weather events of the 21st century will look nothing like those that came before — and hundreds of years of past preparation will not suffice.” — Justin Worland, Time

The U.S. must transition to green energy so weather doesn’t get even more extreme

“The irony is that these fossil fuels have caused climate change. But now climate change is making it impossible for them to even operate. … They just underscore how urgent it is for us to get off fossil fuels, because it's really destabilizing our infrastructure across the board.” — Energy policy researcher Leah Stokes to KCRW

All energy plans must be centered on helping keep people safe

“Centering people’s safety in planning.... is likely critical to making sure we’re optimizing the right things as we face extreme emergency conditions. Considerations like building insulation, community emergency plans and ensuring there are safe and resilient places for people to go can protect against multiple types of failure.” — Infrastructure researcher Emily Grubert to NBC News

The U.S. needs a national grid

“The best way to build resiliency against these events, which are increasing in frequency due to climate change, is to connect the regions of the country into a single national grid, so that regions facing difficulty can draw power from neighbors who aren’t.” — David Roberts, Vox

Stability must be a key consideration as the U.S. moves to green energy

“Most of the country’s power comes from coal, oil and natural gas — the very fuels driving climate change. The grid of the future will need to be powered primarily by zero-carbon electricity sources, such as solar and wind — and rebuilding the grid from top to bottom, without further disrupting energy supplies, will be a delicate balancing act.” — Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times

Smaller ‘microgrids’ can prevent widespread power collapses

“It's well past time to recognize a fundamental vulnerability of the power system and take advantage of where we are now with digital technologies, more distributed technology, storage, and flexibility and deal with the root cause and not play whack a mole with these large scale systems.” — Green energy researcher Mark Dyson to Politico

A better grid will be expensive, but it’s desperately needed

“Investing in resilience is a form of insurance. It costs money, and it’s reasonable to ask how much is enough. The cost of guarding against every conceivable climate extremity would be prohibitive. … But this doesn’t excuse policy makers simply turning a blind eye to infrequent yet recurring events that cause massive losses when they happen.” — Editorial, Bloomberg

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images