A centralized grid is failing Texans. It’s time to reimagine the energy system

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 for energy resources, helping to dampen rampant price escalations, while also delivering savings when the grid is functioning properly.

Decentralization won’t happen overnight, but Texas can learn from successful efforts in other states. For example, in the Northeast, a battery storage incentive program called ConnectedSolutions uses energy efficiency funds to incentivize uptake of battery storage through a pay-for-performance demand response model. That means that when demand spikes, utilities can call on hundreds or even thousands of batteries in homes, businesses, and community facilities to deliver power to the grid. The program creates a consistent value stream for system owners and provides a valuable service to the grid. In Texas, a similar program could have helped to fill the gap in energy supply that crashed the grid.

Incentives can be targeted to those who need them most. In California, the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) is tiered to provide higher battery storage incentives to low-income households, households with medically vulnerable residents, and facilities in disadvantaged communities. Battery storage rebates for those living in, or facilities serving, high wildfire risk communities prone to outages and power shutoffs can receive a battery for basically no cost.

While recovering from the current disaster, Texas can help prevent the next one. The state will likely receive Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) support to assist in disaster recovery. A portion of these funds can be allocated to improving energy resilience through the development of decentralized, local solar+storage resources. In Puerto Rico, CDBG-DR funds are being used to pay for solar+storage systems for vulnerable households.

There may be no sure way to keep the lights on during a disaster, but communities shouldn’t be left in the cold and dark because of outdated energy infrastructure. Texans would benefit from a robust, decentralized energy system powered by solar+storage in homes, community facilities, and businesses. Diversifying and decentralizing the grid is a very real and possible goal. The technology exists. Texas just needs to take the leap.

Marriele Mango is a project director for Clean Energy Group where she manages technical assistance and capacity building programs to support the development of solar plus battery storage projects to benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. Seth Mullendore is vice president and project director for Clean Energy Group where he leads projects ranging from advancing customer-sited solar and battery storage in underserved communities to the replacement of power plants with clean technologies.