Will the Texas storm of 2022 have residents feeling déjà vu?

Updated

frozen tree branch in texas with a utility in the background
Has the state done enough to prevent last year’s record-setting power failure from happening all over again? Image source: Washington Post

Last year’s February storm highlighted significant weaknesses in Texas’ electric grid that could have been avoided had state regulators listened to experts' warnings after the 2011 Groundhog Day blizzard. 

But, instead of making necessary weatherization upgrades to prevent widespread weather-induced power outages, the state continued operating business as usual. So, it was really no surprise when Texas experienced catastrophic grid failure in 2021, ultimately leading to 200+ deaths, record-breaking electricity bills,  and millions of dollars in damages. 

With yet another winter storm underway in the Lone Star State, are Texas residents going to experience déjà vu, or did state regulators do enough to ensure the lights will stay on and homes stay warm? 

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Weather and legislation to lessen impact on Texans 

The good news is, this storm most likely won’t be as disastrous as last year’s. There’s two reasons for that. For one, the storm isn’t projected to be as brutal. Temperatures in 2021 plummeted to below zero in some parts of Texas, while temperatures are currently projected to settle in the teens. 

Another promising outlook for Texas is that after last year’s storm, legislatures did make some changes to make the grid more resilient to cold weather (unlike the one in 2011). The most significant of these changes, a rule approved by the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT) back in October 2021, required power companies to prepare their equipment for winter weather events by December 1, 2021.

ERCOT, the non-profit organization in charge of the state’s grid, also took a stab at addressing skyrocketing electricity bills by capping how much wholesale electricity can be sold for, to the tune of $5,000 per megawatt-hour (MWh). Last year, wholesale energy was selling for $9,000 per megawatt-hour during the storm, compared to the roughly $50 per MWh it typically sells for, which, in some cases, drove up homeowners’ utility bills to over 70 times more than what they normally would pay.

Did legislatures do enough? 

Governor Abbott was quoted saying, “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas” after signing about a dozen pieces of legislation targeted at the grid, and that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on” this winter. 

We can’t help but take Governor Abbott’s statement with a grain of salt, since the storm has already caused 70,000 residents to lose power. Plus, merely one year’s time and a few new pieces of legislation can’t possibly fix every single issue that led to $130 billion in damages and 210 dead Texans. 

With that said, there remain a couple of pretty glaring issues with the grid in Texas, and they have to do with the availability of natural gas and the demand for energy.

Natural gas still susceptible to issues 

Yes, it’s great that power plants have been weatherized, however, natural gas production and delivery facilities have not been. In fact, gas companies aren’t mandated to start the weatherization process until 2023. This is a pretty significant problem, considering nearly half of Texas’ electricity comes from natural gas. 

Just last month, natural gas production fell by 25% as multiple natural gas companies reported the need to flare off gas because of frozen equipment during a cold front. While no major outages occurred, it does raise a red flag: if natural gas companies can’t handle a cold snap, how can they be expected to reliably operate during a full-fledged winter storm?

Energy efficiency problems have yet to be addressed 

All of the moves made by the state government have only addressed one side of the outage issue: the supply side. And while it’s definitely important to make sure that power plants have enough resources to stay up and running, Texas could have made a bigger push to help decrease demand, as well. 

One major way to do this is to promote energy efficiency upgrades. Texas is ranked as one of the least energy-efficient states in the U.S. Most Texas homes aren’t built to withstand cold temperatures; they’re poorly insulated and use wildly inefficient heaters, which leads to heat loss and a really high electric demand. 

Texas could have addressed this in a number of ways, whether it be through energy efficiency rebates that help lower the costs of replacing power-hungry appliances, or providing incentives for re-insulating homes. But instead, the state turned a blind eye to the full picture of what caused their grid to fail.

Solar and storage could be the light at the end of the tunnel 

In general, it’s clear that Texas’ heavy reliance on a single fuel source is less than ideal, as natural gas continues to be an issue for them. So, encouraging more large-scale renewable energy generation (whether it be solar or wind), and incorporating it with energy storage, could help meet power demand. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Distributed solar generation, like home solar panels paired with batteries, can be an incredibly effective tool in strengthening Texas’ grid and keeping the power on in homes throughout the state. 

By installing solar-plus-battery storage, homeowners can rest assured knowing that they have access to reliable backup power during these winter storms that cause the notoriously unreliable grid to go down. Not only that, but when homeowners use the solar energy that’s generated on their roof and then stored in their battery, they’re lowering the demand on the grid. Less pressure on the grid means it’s less likely power plants will have to shut down.

Another benefit Texans will see by installing solar is that it provides these benefits and more, beyond just the winter months. Solar-plus-storage decreases homeowner demand on the grid throughout the entire year, which is a huge plus for power plants. 

Plus, solar and storage decreases electric bills, so when the prices of electricity increase because of winter weather events, solar homeowners don't really have to worry about it. They’ve got backup power, steady pricing, and peace of mind. 

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Will next winter be any better for Texans? 

Though Texas’ grid still has significant shortcomings, this storm could be a catalyst for ERCOT, the PUCT, and other government officials to start making more substantial changes to their electricity grid.

Despite that, the state does seem to drag its feet a bit when it comes to these things, so Texans might still have to relive the uncertainties that come with these winter storms over and over again. Hopefully, more demand-side changes are on the horizon, in the form of energy efficiency incentives, home solar-plus-storage rebates, and a good, hard look at the potential success that could come with instituting a deregulated energy market. 

We’re not so sure about that last one, and it may take time for the others to take hold too, but the good news is Texans do have the ability to take control of their own fate through home solar and storage to hopefully break this Groundhog’s Day winter weather cycle. 

 - Author of Solar Reviews

Catherine Lane

SolarReviews Blog Author

Catherine is a researcher and content specialist at SolarReviews. She has strong interests in issues related to climate and sustainability which led her to pursue a degree in environmental science at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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