Learning the Lessons of the Texas Freeze: We Need to Transition to a Clean Grid | Opinion

One year ago, at my family's home in south Texas, I posted a rare shot of icicles hanging off a post and rail fence and tweeted: "Ice on mesquite and palm trees, trickles of running water from the tap, no heating or lighting for hours. Clinics closed, COVID shots delayed, long lines for gas & not a jug of milk in sight at the grocery."

As I wrote then, to say nothing of 2020, it was not a normal February day in Texas.

My family got off relatively easy with intermittent power loss, making do with the spare hours when power was on to cook and charge our phones. We quickly lost running water as the municipal pumps ran out of backup power. Not knowing what was happening weighed on all of us, and it weighs on many still.

This week marks the one year anniversary of the winter freeze that cut off power to 5 million Texans and led to 246 lives being lost. My fear is that most Texans and Americans have missed the point: It's no surprise that the systems that failed are also the same ones that emit greenhouse gasses and pollute our air and water day-in and day-out. This story is familiar to many in my community and in other frontline communities across the country, where people pay their bills, live and work in the shadow of our extractive energy industry and are still the first to lose power—and that needs to change.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the past year. The state did require utilities and electric providers to weatherize their infrastructure to prevent frigid temps from cutting power, but regulators let gas companies off the hook, leaving weatherization decisions up to companies—the same companies whose lack of weatherized pipes and pumps were a key cause of last year's blackout.

Transmission towers support power lines
Transmission towers support power lines above the frozen over Clear Fork of the Trinity River after a snow storm on Feb.16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The natural gas industry is accountable to the Texas Railroad Commission, the state's fossil fuel regulator. The problem is that the commission is effectively a captured agency, led more so by the interests of the industry they regulate than by the public. In selecting members for a new advisory council to identify disaster mitigation measures that natural gas producers and distributors should take, the commission took its cues directly from industry members. It follows a long history in Texas of the energy industry getting exactly what it wants in the aftermath of egregious failures.

In 2011, natural gas wells and fossil fuel generators failed as an extreme cold front swept through Texas leading to power outages across the state. In 2014, another front of freezing temperatures caused major generators in Texas to fail again. Both events led to investigations that found power generators and fuel providers were ill prepared for extreme temperature events and needed to weatherize to prevent future collapse. State electeds, regulators and the power industry knew what needed to be done, and yet nothing was done.

And so, here we are again.

The climate is changing, and along with it the cycles of weather we consider normal. The next natural disaster—which means the next human disaster—is really a matter of when and where, not if. More than 40 percent of Americans experienced extreme weather events last year, including many fatal events, forcing people from their homes and costing billions of dollars.

Every time it's regular people who pay for the failures, either with their pocketbooks or with their lives. What will it take for leaders to see there's a deeper problem here, one that can't be solved with stop-gap measures? Will it take another disaster and more lives lost? That's just unacceptable.

To be resilient in the face of a shifting normal, we must rethink how our entire energy system works and who it's meant to work for. And it's not just in Texas. Conditions for catastrophic failure exist across the United States with incentives to reduce cost at the expense of reliability, to centralize power generation as opposed to distributing it, to promote market efficiency but disincentivize competition from renewable energy.

Instead, Texas, and the nation, should prioritize smarter grids that carry power from clean solar and wind operations. One study found that rooftop solar could have made up 40-60 percent of the electricity supply gap during the height of the Texas freeze last year. Simple fixes like insulating homes, improving energy efficiency and building standards will go a long way. Texas is a state with one of the highest economic potentials for improving home energy efficiency. Most of all, we can't depend on methane gas anymore—it's not reliable and it's not compatible with a rapidly heating planet.

The way that our power systems are built and run matters to all of us. In particular, it matters to the most marginalized communities, those hardest hit by the injustices of energy production: fossil fuel extraction, plant siting, pollution, unreliable services and high relative energy costs. We know that the solutions lie in our inevitable transition to clean energy. It's time for us to lead the way.

Michael Bueno is a native Texan from the Rio Grande Valley. He's spent several years working with both federal and state leaders to advance just and equitable energy and environmental policies. Currently, Michael is studying for his master's degree at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His Twitter is @michaelbebueno.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.