How many Texans died as a result of catastrophic power outages earlier this year? It depends on who you ask. Texas state officials are lowballing the death count — and their denial may have profound implications for the state’s future energy policy.

State officials say the massive failure of fossil-fuel power plants in February caused 151 deaths. But a new Buzzfeed report found that the true number could be many times higher. The report, aptly titled “The Graveyard Doesn't Lie,” used independent experts to analyze mortality patterns after the outages.

The experts concluded that more than 700 people died as a result of the Texas power failure. That would qualify as the largest ever mass casualty event from power outages on the American mainland.

Of course, this is not the first time power outages caused large-scale loss of life. Blackouts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria may have resulted in over 4,000 deaths — more than the Commonwealth government admits. Many of those fatalities were among the island’s sickest, poorest and most marginalized residents.

On the U.S. mainland, power outages from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 led to 117 deaths, according to the Red Cross. While thousands died after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it is difficult to determine how many of those deaths resulted from power outages.

The Texas death toll hit a grim new milestone. Yet despite the Buzzfeed report, the Texas state government is sticking to its low death count.

It matters, because these deaths must count for something. By minimizing the toll of the disaster, Texas state officials are failing to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and its implications for future energy policy.

Indeed, the state’s main response has been to require modest weatherization of fossil fuel power plants, along with billions in new rate hikes to make the power companies solvent. But help for customers? The Texas legislature refused to require any new backup power — no solar installations or battery storage or anything — to protect customers in the future.

That head-in-the-sand response cannot be our future. For the truth remains that power system failures are increasing every day in a world made hotter by climate change. According to new research, power failures in the US have grown by more than 60 percent since 2015.

These events are geographically diverse, occurring from Florida to Maine and California and including noncoastal states such as Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The causes, too, are diverse, from hurricanes and winter storms to unusually intense derechos and public safety power shutoffs for wildfires.

As we now enter another season of hurricanes in the East and wildfires in the West, we will see these power system failures grow worse. This month, we see a new heat dome over Texas and the West, threatening more power outages. This is not a one-off crisis. This is the future, and we need to deal with it.

The power system we have today makes us all more vulnerable. It is a system based on large, centralized fossil-fuel power plants that are increasingly threatened by extreme temperatures, drought and other impacts of climate change. 

Much of the Western power grid is turned off frequently by utilities when wildfires appear. In states like California and Oregon, where utility shut-offs are commonplace, the electric monopolies essentially say to their customers: We’re very sorry about climate change, but if you want electricity, you are on your own.

In a period of dramatic climate impacts, our power system is simply not up the challenge. So, how can we build a resilient, reliable system?

First, we must rapidly expand the use of localized clean power — especially solar and battery storage installed in homes and community facilities. These technologies reduce energy costs, limit climate-changing greenhouse gases, and — when the larger grid goes down — save lives. They have become essential public health and emergency management tools. Solar paired with battery storage can ensure there is always a reliable source of power for those vulnerable populations whose lives are at risk when an outage strikes.

Second, we must have state and federal energy policies and programs that meet this moment. Existing incentives for solar and energy storage do not adequately account for those technologies’ immediate life-saving potential. While some states have begun to implement programs valuing the benefits of residential energy storage, they have failed to fully capture the societal benefits of greater energy resilience. At the federal level, the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative is a promising initial step in prioritizing access and investment in underserved communities. However, details on how the program will be implemented remain sparse.

Today we are at a crossroads. One path follows Texas’s malign example: denying the ghastly toll of grid failure and pretending that structural change is not needed. That approach protects the power companies, not the customers. It is a policy of cruelty and neglect.

Or we can take the other path and urge federal and state policymakers to support life-saving clean energy technologies and to put up real money to make it happen. Emergency management and disaster mitigation must prioritize investments in local energy resilience solutions — starting with the buildout of resilient solar and battery storage systems in underserved and climate-vulnerable communities.

Lewis Milford is president and founder of Clean Energy Group (CEG), a national nonprofit that works to advance clean energy solutions to climate change. Shelley Robbins is a Project Director at CEG where she focuses on resilient power for low wealth communities and clean alternatives to polluting peaker plants.

Published on Jun 28, 2021