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In February, Texas experienced an unprecedented strain on its energy system, with sub-freezing temperatures combined with ‘rotating blackouts’ leaving millions of Texans of all ages stuck without electricity in dangerously cold conditions This catastrophe can show valuable lessons about the importance of energy in our lives today, and what District 32 can do to help stave off something similar happening here. 

How did this happen? During the winter storm, nearly 185 electricity-generating plants – from natural gas and coal fire powered plants, to wind and solar generators – stopped producing power. In Texas, more than 80% of the state’s winter power generation is supplied by natural gas or coal power. During the winter storm those oil and natural gas pipes froze over, leaving energy producers without the fuel necessary to generate electricity. At the same time, Texans all throughout the state turned on their electricity to heat their homes and run their taps, which increased the overall electricity demand on the system. The combination of increased power consumption with decreased power supply threatened to collapse the system.To decrease the load on the electric system, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) ordered some electricity generators to stop providing electricity to communities on a case-by-case basis, leaving Texans with rolling blackouts. Additionally, because Texas operates on a free market based approach to electricity pricing, where different providers can charge different prices, some Texans were seeing electricity bills as high as $16,000 for a few hours of electricity.

This was a catastrophe decades in the making, but three main causes appear:

Regulators not holding power utilities to account to proactively invest in grid resilience. 

  • In an era of climate change, where stronger storms and variable weather are increasingly the norm, utilities are still reluctant to invest in stronger and more robust infrastructure due to the relatively high costs of installation. When utilities do invest, they also tend to pass costs onto ratepayers. In Texas, power regulators were not required to prepare for cold snaps and winter storms 

Power utilities do not incorporate a variety of models and strategies into their climate planning. 

  • Modeling allows electric utilities to guess at the impacts of different scenarios during the winter and summer. However, with climate change, these models will have to be updated. The power utilities in Texas were not using up to date models that reflected the reality of climate change.

Power utilities not securing a multitude of resilience strategies. 

  • Power utilities in Texas focused overwhelmingly on a few known tactics to prepare for winter and summer storms. They weren’t thinking outside of the box, as utilities are generally risk averse and like to go with the ‘tried and true.’ Encouraging utilities to try a number of different resilience strategies can make them less likely to fail during a crisis, and ultimately save their rate payers money, time, and lives. 

District 32 has its own history of dealing with power outages caused by the lack of effective utilities as recently as August 2020 when Tropical Storm Isaias disrupted the power for at least 44,500 customers in New York City, a number behind only Hurricane Sandy. A similar lack of preparation and outdated infrastructure was partially blamed for the outages, and New York City has had longstanding issues with importing and supplying as much power as it consumers.  

The Kaled Alamarie campaign plans to increase the grid resilience of District 32 by:

Investigating opportunities for locally produced, distributed, and consumed power. 

  • Microgrids, or locally distributed and independent electricity grids, can detach from a central grid in times of crisis to continuously and seamlessly provide energy to a neighborhood or community. To support these microgrids, NYC can invest in a variety of energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal, so that we don’t find ourselves relying on a single source for our electricity during a crisis.

Seeking legislation that encourages and enforces PGES, ConEd and other electricity providers to prepare well planned disaster plans.

  • Utilities are risk averse. Strong, proactive legislation and cooperation with the power companies can deliver a better, more robust system for all. 

Expanding home weatherization and investing in ‘passive survivability’ (https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/passive-survivability)

  • Passive survivability is the concept that homes which lose their electricity will still maintain some level of comfort and usability. This applies during the winter to keep homes nice and warm, and in the summer to keep homes from overheating without having to rely directly on at conditioning systems. This is especially important in the summer for ensuring that the homes of the elderly and disabled don’t overheat during blackouts and outages. (Baniasaddi, 2019, 2)

Supporting the NYC gas ban that will require new construction to be completely gas free:

  • Mayor DeBlasio and the City Council have passed legislation to ban gas hookups in new construction buildings by 2040. This ambitious goal is good for District 32’s pocketbooks, as it encourages developers to use more efficient electric heating systems such as heat pumps (US Dept. of Energy) instead of out of date gas furnaces. Electric power is not only more efficient than gas on a site-by-site basis, but it also decreases the need for costly and potentially inefficient fuel hookups (O’Rear et al, 2019, 2). To read more about the legislation, click here.

In the meantime, here’s what we all can do:

  1. Personal: Invest in home weatherization and resilience opportunities. 
  2. Kaled’s Campaign: Join the Kaled Alamarie for Council Campaign in encouraging PGES to proactively plan for a changing climate.
  3. Systemic Changes: Invest in renewables and a diversified energy mix to foster this market. 
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