Sean Parker is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a second-year ENRP student.
The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily reflect the views of Policy Perspectives or the Trachtenberg school.
Houston, We Have a Problem
On February 16th, 4.5 million Texan households lost power in the middle of one of the harshest winter storms to reach the Lone Star state in decades. Stranded in the cold, Texans were left idling in their cars and constructing makeshift fireplaces from backyard grills to keep warm. As a consequence, 111 people died from health complications due to grid malfunctions brought on by the storm. The failure of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to adequately predict and plan for such an event demonstrates the glaring vulnerabilities of the state’s infrastructure. Texas’ misfortunes from this extreme weather event is a glaring reminder to the rest of the country that we need to get serious about crumbling infrastructure and why President Biden needs to pass the much-needed American Jobs Plan.
Lone Star Ingenuity
Texas’ grid system is unique in that it is completely self reliant—it is the only state in the country that has its own grid infrastructure. The state’s grid system was overhauled in the late 1990s to create a new, deregulated electricity market so the state could operate without federal oversight. Texas benefits from having an energy rich state thanks to its plentiful deposits of oil and is currently the nation’s top producer of natural gas. Limited regulations in the energy market have also generated a booming renewable energy sector, especially from wind power which generates 30 percent of total wind production in the United States. Thanks to its abundant resources and market-friendly approach, Texans enjoy some of the lowest retail prices per kilowatt hour in the nation. With 300 retail electricity providers spread throughout the state, Texas’ energy sector is remarkably strong. What could possibly go wrong in the nation’s energy capital?
Lessons From the Storm
As it turns out, a lot. Texas is not as self-reliant as originally thought. All it took was one giant storm to plunge temperatures and wreak havoc across the state. A surge in demand for electricity to heat people’s homes skyrocketed, creating an energy demand that exceeded the state’s supply. Utility companies were left with no choice but to turn off power, causing blackouts and leaving millions of people stranded without heat. Many natural gas and oil pipelines, which make up half of the state’s energy generation, froze or burst as a result of poor weatherization. (Texas’ deregulated market does not require Energy producers to weatherize their equipment for harsh weather events.) Without interstate connectivity into the state’s grid system, Texas was unable to seek assistance from neighboring states to help supplement their load need and was left isolated from the rest of the country.
A Need For Investment
The breakdown of Texas’ grid system exposed the soft underbelly of the rugged Lone Star State. Despite being the nation’s leader in energy production, Texas was left in the cold. The storm showed how a lack of oversight and management can disrupt entire communities. Interconnectivity among state’s grid systems matters. The Biden administration needs to take bold action to address this nation’s vulnerable energy infrastructure.
The American Jobs Plan is a necessary first step to addressing this concern. The plan proposes spending up to $100 billion dollars on upgrading and expanding the country’s aging electric transmission system and $50 billion to improve infrastructure resilience to protect against major climate and extreme weather events. Investments in new transmission lines with interconnectivity to renewable energy technologies are significant parts of Biden’s vision for reimagining America’s grid system.
The bill secures investment for transmission lines through a series of tax credits to help build out 20 GW of high-voltage capacity transmission lines. It also provides tax credits to lower the cost of investments in clean energy technology to help reach 100 percent carbon-free power by 2035. Fixing the nation’s grid infrastructure will take time. Funding for the American Jobs Plan is spread across ten years, meaning structural change will happen slowly. Still, starting the process now is an important step in ensuring our grid system is resilient over the next century.
From the Open Range to the Coasts
Texas is just one example of how changing weather patterns are affecting the critical systems we take for granted. Texas may not be accustomed to the harsh storms more common among northern states, but if current trends continue, we must all expect the unexpected. Our country cannot afford to remain unprepared for the next storm that will inevitably come along. Ensuring that our nation’s grid system is resilient to inhospitable weather events and capable of providing basic needs such as heat in the dead of winter will save lives. Climate change is accelerating the pace in which we experience unpredictability. Now is the time to act, now is the time for President Biden to deliver the American Jobs Plan.