How the Texas Freeze Just Made 2021 the Year America Moves to Distributed Energy

By February 19, 2021 Residential Solar

How did the Texas Power Outage Start?

Ten years ago when I first entered the solar industry I saw solar panels + battery storage installations as the solution to many of the problems that people face today.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that the vast majority of Americans had no idea that the problems I wanted to help solve even existed.  Rapidly increasing power costs, grid black-outs, increased electricity demand, and a changing climate are not things most people think about on a daily basis. However, after experiencing firsthand what it was like not having power for 88+ hours during the February 2021 Texas Freeze, all of the reasons I started ZenSolar are now in the national spotlight. 

 

Unlike the rest of the nation, Texas alone resisted joining a U.S. regional power grid arguably to avoid federal regulation.  The consequences are now on display before the world.  On February 9th, 2021, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) which manages the flow of 90% of the state’s electric power to more than 26 million Texans, held a two-and-a-half-hour board meeting.  Unfortunately, ERCOT President and CEO spent a grand total of 40 seconds addressing and completely downplaying the catastrophic winter storm that was due to arrive only 4 days later on Feb. 13th, saying, “. . . it does look like we’ll have a little bit of winter weather to contend with during the course of the rest of this week.”  As a result of ERCOT’s unpreparedness and irresponsible dismissal of the severity of the storm, 4 million people have gone without power for over 4 days straight.  Hundreds of thousands of Texans still are without power as I write this.

 

On Friday, February 12th, ice began covering Texas roads.  Many parts of Texas are further north than Mexico so snow removal is a foreign concept in those areas.  There are no snow plows and no salt put on the roads.  In Austin, there was a 60+ car pile-up on I-35.  In Dallas, a 120+ car pile-up left several dead and even more injured.  It was at this time that things started taking a turn for the worse across the entire massive state.

 

Texas was minutes away from months-long power outages.

 

My home and ZenSolar’s headquarters are located in Austin, Texas.  The power provider here, Austin Energy (AE), tweeted late Saturday night that due to the severity of the storm and resulting damage to their power equipment, they would enact rolling blackouts to 400,000 Austinites.  AE told us to prepare to be without power for 20-40 minutes at a time.  I remember thinking, “thank goodness it’s only a matter of minutes without power and not longer.”  I woke up at 1:37am and noticed the power was out.  I fell back asleep under the impression that when I woke up in the morning, I’d be able to brew a cup of coffee, perk up, and learn the latest.  Needless to say, I never had that cup of coffee!

 

It took a couple of hours of researching and learning about the severity of the storm before accepting the fact we would be without power for an extended period of time. How much time was the big question mark. Luckily, a friend still had power.  As things grew colder, the situation became bleaker, so I decided to pack up and head out.  I figured I’d be back the very same Monday night.  Clearly, that did not happen.

 

What’s taken place in Texas over the last 5 days has left people cold, hungry, frustrated, angry, confused, helpless, and in some cases, hopeless.  Unfortunately over 30 people so far have lost their lives.  In Abilene a man was found dead, frozen to death on his recliner.  His wife was beside him and nearly dead.  She’s still in the hospital as I write this.  One family’s home in Sugar Land burned down after the family started a fire to keep warm after they lost power.  Three young children and their grandmother died because the house burned down.  The mother of the children made it out and, while suffering from burns of her own, had to be restrained by a first responder from going back into the house.  She’s still in the hospital. 

Don’t blame wind turbines for Texas’ historic outages.

 

How did the Texas power outage start?  Some were quick to blame renewable energy after ERCOT mentioned frozen wind turbines were among the energy sources affected by the extreme weather.  Some politicians immediately began politicizing the catastrophe by pointing fingers at anything related to renewable energy, including sharing an image of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine in Sweden in 2014!  The fact is that states like Iowa and Minnesota are large producers of electricity via wind farms.  Their systems are designed to withstand far worse weather conditions than what we have experienced here in Texas.  Planning and preparation are key.  

 

The real reasons behind the Texas power grid failure are complicated and convoluted.  The historic Texas freeze caused an exponential increase in demand that far outweighed what ERCOT has planned for.  Intense winter weather stopped a substantial amount of power production in its tracks.  The electricity demand was astronomically above the levels ERCOT forecasted.  As a result, the decision was made to enact rolling blackouts across the state to reduce overall power usage.  If unmanaged, the surge in demand could have brought the entire grid down, leaving the whole state without power for months.

 

By the time dusk set in around Monday evening, temperatures had dropped to single digits.  As the night crept in, it became clear to me and millions of other Texans we were facing an unprecedented event that no one was prepared to handle.

 

Part 2 coming soon…