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Texas blackouts: We must build the infrastructure of the future now

19th Mar 2021

In the middle of February, the United States State of Texas suffered severe winter storms that caused the failure of the energy grid and left millions without power.

While many leaders in the conservative state were quick to blame renewable energy for the crisis, the entire infrastructure collapsed – from wind and solar to natural gas and coal.
The severity of the weather made Texans crank up the heat, putting a major strain on the system, to ease the pressure, energy companies imposed rolling blackouts meant to last for short periods, but many residents found themselves without power for hours, if not days.

Texas, the country’s largest energy producer, boasts a diverse energy portfolio, which allows residents to receive competitive prices, but the system is also largely deregulated and has little federal oversight. While the business-friendly state fosters competition between energy companies through this structure, it also does not incentivise businesses to spend extra money on precautions in case of major disasters, like winterising equipment. Most of Texas is also unconnected to neighbouring states’ energy grids, so when the transmission lines failed to bring power to freezing residents, there was no alternative in place.

Republican leaders, including the state’s governor, have been quick to blame “Green New Deal” policies on the state’s energy failures, which left some residents with utility bills costing thousands of dollars, but fossil fuels were just as much to blame, if not more.

Texas receives only a quarter of its energy from renewables like solar and wind; half comes from natural gas. The system was not built for such high demand in the winter. A similar severe weather event in 2011 caused widespread blackouts and federal authorities expressed the need for winterisation to protect the state’s energy supply, but companies returned to business as usual.

It is easier to forget about the severity of a crisis than to invest in preparing for the next one. Similarly, even when crises expose flaws in infrastructure, governments would often rather pay for a one-time clean-up rather than the infrastructure for long-term mitigation. Just the way Texas saw how unprepared their energy grid was for an extreme cold weather event in 2011, and did not do anything about it, they may not learn from the damage of the latest blackout.

Brad Plumer, energy columnist for the New York Times says, “As we see increasingly severe and often unpredictable severe weather, our power systems are going to have to change. Furthermore, if we do not make those changes, well, climate change will bring the change for us. Either we can adapt to changing conditions, prepare for increasingly severe weather, or that weather will break the system”.

Climate change has arrived, and with it, the unpredictability that scientists have warned about. Leaders have an opportunity to deflect blame, or to face the problem head-on. John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight,” recently warned about governments not preparing for the next pandemic, instead of being too ready to put this one behind them. The severity of the current pandemic has exposed flaws in our systems and norms – from wet markets and deforestation to global supply chains.

The Texas blackouts show that governments must start building the infrastructure of the future now – weatherizing equipment for extreme temperature shifts, connecting alternative energy sources for backup, etc. The climate data of the past, upon which much infrastructure was built, will not be the climate of the future.

Temperatures and weather events that were never before seen are being seen now. Many governments around the world are admirably re-committing to their Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction targets, but climate change will bring unpredictable alterations to current living standards. It is valuable to diversify energy portfolios, but it will be necessary to invest in mitigation strategies and resilient infrastructure that may suffer severe strain in the near future. Even wealthy nations may see their populations suffer third-world conditions if they do not prepare for even more extreme conditions than scientists have warned about.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall
Staff Writer, Grit Daily Environmental Columnist, The Muslim News

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