Energy Interdependence and Diversity: How Cooperation and Balance Keep Our Communities Strong
Alex "Solar Girl" Steele
As a national presence in residential and commercial solar energy installation, we at Solar Wolf Energy love renewables more than most. We’re huge supporters of clean energy transition because we know it is the best path our society can take towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing the harmful impacts of climate change, and preserving our natural resources. However, we also know that balance and moderation are key elements of any system, and strengthening the entire power grid, not just renewable sectors, is necessary for security and safety. Reflecting on the crisis that occurred in Texas last week, there is an important conversation that needs to be had about how we can improve our nationwide energy policy, infrastructure, and sourcing to ensure a tragedy like that doesn’t repeat itself. We’ve done some research on the benefits of a diverse and well-coordinated energy matrix, and we want to share that information here.
The Edison Electric Institute is a coalition of American investor-owned utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, serving a body of approximately 220 million people. In coordination with other utility cooperatives such as American Public Power Association and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, they released a statement last week explaining that they were working together to protect the grid, restore power as quickly as possible, and keep in touch with emergency services to stay on top of the most pressing needs of the communities they serve. As electricity is restored to the citizens of Texas, members of the energy industry are planning to avoid a mishap like this occurring again.
In order to prevent a future energy crisis in Texas or anywhere else, there are a number of steps that can be taken by energy generation facilities, transmission and distribution companies. Some steps recommended by electrical engineering experts at Texas A&M University include the following:
- Improve winterization of electrical infrastructure:
Many people’s confidence in renewable power was shaken when they witnessed images of wind turbines frozen in place and solar fields covered in snow, but cold weather alone was not the culprit stopping renewable generation in its tracks. Renewables flourish in frosty regions such as Greenland, Antarctica, Sweden, and Alaska, and the harsh snow and ice there don’t plunge them into the dark. The key is in utilizing de-icer and sophisticated technology such as carbon fiber or internal hot air circulation to keep renewable generation working in the face of sub-zero temperatures and blizzard conditions. Ensuring that future generating stations are similarly prepared to weather freezing temperatures will protect our resources here as well.
Another critical oversight of Texas utility providers included frozen infrastructure at fossil fuel generating stations. Serious freezing occurred with infrastructure such as gas pipelines, illustrating the potential danger of neglecting to winterize these resources. Winterizing existing generation facilities is a relatively simple process that could protect our communities from future disasters.
- Connect the Grid
Presently, the East Coast of the United States is entirely interconnected, as is the West Coast. This means, for example, if Maryland is experiencing power outages, they can draw from a neighboring state such as Delaware or Pennsylvania to avoid a total blackout. On the other side of the nation, if Nevada is struggling to supply power to their communities, they can source some from California or Oregon. Texas is unique in that it is not intimately connected with either coast. Though some regions in Texas are connected to the Eastern grid and Mexico, their policies only allow a marginal amount of power to be transferred. Getting the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, connected to the Western and Eastern grids will allow the Lone Star state to rely on neighboring states for assistance instead of having to struggle through a crisis alone.
- Improve Energy Storage
Backup energy reserves, composed of both fossil fuel and renewable resources, will also be critical for preventing future energy matrix breakdowns. Storing additional natural gas resources near power plants, or investing in utility-scale battery storage for renewable power, could provide vital resources to keep homes lit and warm when the next superstorm threatens our infrastructure.
- Utilize Demand-Response Technology
The final recommendation by the engineering experts at A&M pointed out the way demand-response technology can keep communities from completely losing their power. Instead of rolling blackouts, they recommend leveraging demand-response - turning off power to elective appliances such as washing machines or dishwashers, while leaving power available for critical resources like heaters and lights. This would be a more equitable solution than the current setup, which arbitrarily shuts all power down in selected areas to supply energy to others. Demand-response technology could ensure that no one is left without the power for lifesaving necessities like keeping medicine chilled or running CPAP machines.
These steps can help our nation reinforce itself against future climate-related energy crises, but another important element of maintaining reliable and affordable electricity includes ensuring that we have a robust mix of energy resources. Over the past two years alone, renewables and carbon-free resources have taken up a large portion of the energy mix, growing from approximately ? of the nation’s total electricity in 2019 to over 40% in 2021. This is great news for our environment, economy, and our public health! While offsetting pollutive fuel consumption is a critical step in protecting our population from climate change, our society could benefit from balancing the proliferation of solar and wind with reserves of other fuel types, such as natural gas, hydropower and nuclear, to protect communities from power loss during emergencies if one type of power generation goes offline.
By maintaining a variety of energy generation resources domestically, we can strengthen our energy independence and reduce reliance on importing fuel from other nations. We can also strengthen our resilience against harsh winter storms by keeping different types of energy generation in operation throughout the country at all times. When there is always power being produced in some form at some location within the country, the risk of entire areas being left without energy during natural disasters is reduced, because maintaining a 24/7 energy matrix will augment the benefits of connecting communities to a nationwide transmission network. It can also help benefit local economies by allowing regions to profit from producing power in the way that suits their geography best, providing jobs and reducing delivery costs for residents. Though we encourage a varied energy mix for our nation, we also want to advocate for continued progress in technology to offset the carbon emissions produced by non-renewable resources. Carbon scrubbers, capture-and-sequestration technology, and carbon recycling are all paths to making the practice of fossil fuel consumption less harmful. These innovations can help us maintain a strong, diverse energy mix that will protect communities all across the country from losing power when they need it most.