Opinion: Texas' power outages were avoidable. Here's what we can learn.

A closed gas station due to power outages in Pflugerville, Texas. Photo by: Ricardo B. Brazziell / American-Statesman via USA Today Network

In February, a severe winter snowstorm led to catastrophic power outages in Texas, leaving millions without access to electricity for days. At one point, the state was within minutes of a complete system failure, which would have knocked the power out for weeks or months, triggering a humanitarian crisis.

Political leaders in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, well aware that their future electoral success is pinned to providing constituents with safe and reliable access to energy, will no doubt ask how an energy-abundant, rich state that likes to invest in infrastructure can suffer a significant energy crisis.

For energy policymakers around the world, the lessons of the Texas fiasco should inform their own planning for power grid reliability and resilience to adverse weather events.

First and foremost, access to reliable electricity is a key ingredient for modernity and economic prosperity. Without it, Texans felt they had moved back a century. To put this in context, the shock and limitations of Texas’ multiday outages are a reality that almost 1 billion people around the world have — unfortunately — learned to live with as part of their everyday life.

Evidently, no one thing went wrong. The failure was systemic and multifaceted. However, what the experience drove home is that the traditional power grid is no longer fit to serve our needs.

The Texas outages highlight the need for a more resilient grid — one that can get back up and running after extreme weather, disasters, or attacks.

Preparing for an increasingly erratic climate

The effects of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly undeniable. Until global pollution falls to zero, temperatures will continue to rise, and climate impacts will become more frequent and severe.

Planners and policymakers ultimately need to start incorporating climate science into future designs so that we aren’t building our energy systems for yesterday’s weather.

As extreme weather events become more common, states that fail to invest in maintaining infrastructure and rely heavily on a widespread system with fragile breaking points will find themselves powerless when a storm comes.

Texas neglected to integrate the reality of climate change into its planning. As a state with significant populations in a semiarid climate, Texas prepares its power grid for the hot afternoons of the summer.

What it failed to do — despite years of warnings from energy regulators — was ready itself for extreme winter weather.

As soon as the storm swept in, wind turbines iced over, solar panels were covered in multiple inches of snow, and, more critically, the fleet of thermal plants for nuclear, coal, and natural gas energy went offline while equipment and fuel supplies froze.

The blackouts ultimately came down to a series of planning failures, which led to catastrophic power outages.

For many low-income countries, the risk of failing to prepare for this kind of event is far higher and has the potential to cause major humanitarian issues.

Resilience through distributed renewable energy

The Texas outages highlight the need for a more resilient grid — one that can get back up and running after extreme weather, disasters, or attacks.

The traditional system — designed around large, centralized power plants and one-way flows — is no longer adequate. When a central grid goes down or needs to be repaired, everyone connected to it is at risk of losing power.

One alternative solution for the developing world is the rollout of self-reliant microgrids that can island themselves in these events and keep the power flowing. By powering these microgrids with renewable energy, policymakers can simultaneously mitigate energy poverty while improving energy security for consumers.

The scattered, localized nature of these distributed renewable energy — or DRE — systems makes them less vulnerable and more resilient to climate disasters. For example, after Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti in 2016, a company restored DRE grids in under three days while parts of the country connected to larger, sprawling systems went without power for weeks.

Ultimately, the Texas energy crisis was avoidable and solvable. As we upgrade old systems, politicians who invest in DRE systems will be rewarded with new economic opportunities and improved climate outcomes for their constituents. Systems will be cleaner, as well as more efficient and resilient, making DRE an investment that keeps on giving.

Looking around the world, we can see these solutions are effective, from backing up critical infrastructure in Puerto Rico to ensuring communities in India and Nigeria have local, reliable, and sustainable power infrastructure. With that lens, perhaps the Texas experience will teach others about the importance of planning. And as they implement solutions, Texas can learn from them about managing a more resilient grid in the face of climate change.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Ashvin Dayal

    Ashvin Dayal is senior vice president for The Rockefeller Foundation’s global power and climate initiative, focused on scaling up renewable energy access to drive green and inclusive local development. He oversees a diverse range of investments in the distributed renewable energy space, including energy project investments, along with grants for data and technology innovation, policy, research, and advocacy.
  • Michael E. Webber

    Michael E. Webber is the Josey centennial professor in energy resources at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. “Power Trip: The Story of Energy,” his documentary television series, is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and local PBS stations.