This piece was co-authored by Brandon Charles, a masters student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago who previously worked in the electricity sector.
The experience lived by millions of Texans in recent weeks is a unique and horrific tragedy. The loss of heat, water, and even life due to extreme weather conditions has been shocking. Further economic damage on top of that caused by the coronavirus pandemic is likely as well. The widespread loss of electricity was central to the crisis. Grid operators failed to adequately prepare for an increased need and a collapsing supply due to various weather-related problems: iced wind turbines, frozen coal piles and natural gas pipelines, and power plants left without the winterization needed to protect pipes, sensors, motors and other components from freezing.
If Texas were an anomaly that would be the end of the story. But Texas is part of a pattern of weather-induced incidents with economic, health and security implications. Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Maria all brought the areas they hit to a standstill, knocking out power for weeks; in the case of Maria leaving Puerto Ricans without power for almost a year. Wildfires on the West Coast seem to set new records year after year, forcing grid operators to cut power to avert more catastrophic damages. A historic heat wave sweeping the west last summer created the need for rolling blackouts in California after the power operator was unable to maintain sufficient supply to meet the increased power needs.
Although it is difficult to connect a single weather event to climate change, an increased pattern of extreme weather—more intense heat waves or cold snaps, more frequent extreme storms, dry weather-induced wildfires—are what can be expected from climate change. The use of cleaner sources of energy like wind and solar can be a powerful tool in the fight to reduce climate change’s impacts. But, incorporating these variable sources into the grid is another challenge, as is providing more electricity generation to power a whole new fleet of electric vehicles. By 2050, the nation’s demand for electricity is expected to increase by as much as 38 percent—bringing new risks to the grid, as well as to the economy and national security.
The answer is not to slow down these transitions but to address the risks more aggressively. Step one is to centralize leadership through the appointment of a national Electricity Resilience and Innovation Czar. A centralized czar could coordinate the changes that must be made to ensure the grid is reliable, resilient and prepared to face the extreme weather climate change will bring amid more variable generation and increased demand. The need for this centralized leadership is so important because, while the country has grown and thrived with twentieth-century grid infrastructure and a highly decentralized regulatory system, the complex web it has created has made it difficult to identify where, when, and by whom changes should be made—and who should be responsible for failures.