The crisis unfolding in Texas is tragic and familiar. News reports from the Lone Star state – widespread outages, deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, and stressed healthcare facilities – mirror those that followed Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In both instances, a crisis unfolded after an energy system dependent on large, centralized power plants was rendered inoperable after a climate disaster.
Some are casting blame on either natural gas plants or wind turbines as a cause of the devastating systemwide failure. Certainly a gas system ill-equipped to handle such frigid temperatures was a major problem when demand spiked. But, regardless of how the power is generated, grids built around big power plants have failed time and time again during climate crises. Centralized power generation is not the way to build a resilient electric system.
What’s the solution? Decentralize the grid. Local energy resources — primarily solar photovoltaics paired with battery storage (solar+storage) — could help stabilize Texas’ grid by responding to shortfalls in energy supply and creating pockets of energy resilience. Small solar+storage systems installed in homes and community facilities could support public health and save lives, especially among vulnerable populations.
As temperatures lingered at freezing and power remained unreliable, the situation in Texas quickly deteriorated into a public health emergency. Widespread outages strained health services and forced many community-serving facilities to close. Vulnerable residents were left with fewer places to turn to when sheltering in place wasn’t a safe option anymore. Some areas were warned that it could be days before power was restored.
Medically vulnerable residents reliant on electricity to power medical equipment had to decide between staying home and hoping the power comes back, or venturing into the cold during a pandemic. For those with reduced mobility or transportation options, choices were even more limited: wait or call an ambulance. Local resilient and reliable energy systems powered by solar+storage could ease the strain on communities during these crises.
Tragically, desperate households accidentally poisoned themselves in an effort to keep warm. Residents ran diesel generators or gas grills indoors or left their stoves on. One county has seen more than 300 carbon monoxide poisonings — one hospital reported half of their carbon monoxide patients were children. Multiple deaths have been reported.
The COVID vaccination effort was compromised. One CVS had to reschedule appointments when a power outage caused the store to close. In Harris County, more than 8,000 doses had to be quickly administered after thawing due to a power outage. In that instance, health providers were prepared with a backup generator, but it failed. Luckily, officials were able to ensure that not a dose was wasted. There is no such guarantee for future outages.
Clearly, it is time to rethink the energy system.
Solar+storage can alleviate the burden on public health and first responders by ensuring that vulnerable populations have access to safe and reliable backup power. Strategic solar+storage installations at community centers, health clinics, schools, and senior living facilities can power emergency resource centers for residents. Medically vulnerable households with residential solar+storage systems can continue to power lights, refrigeration for medication, and outlets for medical devices, without fear of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The power crisis in Texas has also resulted in economic hardships for many households. In some communities, demand drove up natural gas prices 10 to 100 times higher than normal. One resident is expecting a power bill for more than $10,000. For low-income residents, who already pay a higher percentage of their salary on utility costs, any utility bill increase can be financially insurmountable. Distributed solar+storage could help ease demand…