Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, this is The Takeaway. In Texas, around one million people were still without power Thursday morning after a powerful winter storm pounded most of the central and southern parts of the United States. Residents are seeking warmth in their cars, scrounging for gasoline, going without critical medical supplies, and running low on food. In the meantime, government officials in Texas are pointing fingers at who they think is to blame, but there remains little relief in sight.
Texas is not alone, the increase in intensity of these climate change-related weather events could spell more trouble for the American power grid which remains woefully unprepared. We begin today with the discussion about why from hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to wildfires in California, to winter storms in Texas, the failure of our power grids continues to put Americans at risk and what we can do to improve them. I have Ivan Penn, an energy correspondent for the New York Times with us. Ivan, thanks for joining us.
Ivan Penn: Pleasure to be with you.
Tanzina: Julie McNamara is also with us and she's the senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Julie, welcome to the show.
Julie McNamara: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Ivan, how old are many of our electrical grids across the country?
Ivan: We're talking about a system that is 100 years old. Of course, we saw as you mentioned, the wildfires in California, the worst of them as far as fatalities, the campfire which was sparked by a 100-year-old tower that was by the Utility Pacific Gas and Electric Standards 25 years past its useful life. You see that a lot of the equipment is not only old, but it's outdated.
Tanzina: Julie, many of our grids are centralized. What does that mean? Does that mean that many of them are public utilities, are many of them private? What does that tell us about the actual infrastructure?
Julie: Sure. What that really is getting at is this idea that historically we had a grid built around these large power plants, these large coal plants, nuclear. The generators that were often far away from load and then we'd have these large transmission lines, those high power lines that you see taking that electricity from these power plants all the way to cities and then we get to the infrastructure like substations that then convey electricity into the wires you see running around town, such that the electricity comes from all the way that long distance to get to your home for when the light switch is flipped.
That's changing, as we get more renewables online, we're moving from that centralized one where those large power plants provide so much of the power where they're supposed to be on all the time to more decentralized loads where we have electricity resources in many more places.
Tanzina: That sounds like it could be a good thing.
Julie: That's right. I think we see a lot of opportunity here because what we know is a problem is if we have these major points of vulnerability because if you have such large power plants or power lines, one point of failure can have a much bigger impact, whereas if you have a more decentralized system you're able to ride through better so that an outage that you see may be limited in scope.
Tanzina: Ivan, let's talk about what's happening in Texas because that's the most recent example that we have. There's a lot of finger-pointing among politicians about who did what, what do we know about why the Texas power grid failed?
Ivan: To be clear, the grid itself which is the network of wires and substations, the grid itself did not fail, but what we did have was problems with freezing of pipelines and power plants going down. Part of this was the lack of reserves. Texas decided to isolate itself, it is unique in the country. Most of the country has a system where you have required reserves, Texas decided that it would use market forces to drive how the system operated. Basic supply and demand, when demand really goes up, the idea is that the price goes up and consumers then will use less power then that will help bring the price down.
Then also the high prices would cause generators, power producers to come into the market and bring more power, but there wasn't the access that was needed to fuel, to power plants and then power plants were failing. You had more than a third of the generation capacity that was unavailable at one point. That was a decision by the state of Texas in how it was going to operate its electricity system. It was an economic-driven one rather than what you see in most of the country as a systematic requirements for reserves.
Tanzina: Texas is an anomaly in this case but does that mean that our infrastructure across the country is in good shape because it isn't part of the economically based decision or does that mean that we have power grids that are still at risk here because they aren't to our earlier point updated?
Ivan: That's not the case, it's just the driver in the Texas situation. Again if we look at California, we had rolling blackouts last summer that were driven by a variety of circumstances including the fact that-- A lot of times it's planning, a lot of times it's the age of equipment. It's a variety of factors. Then economics does actually drive a lot of this, part of that economic driver is the fact that the utilities, many of them are investor-owned and driven by wall street profits.
Tanzina: Julie, I want to bring in some more specifics here about Texas and I want to get back, Ivan, to your point on profit-driven motives here and whether that actually serves the public in terms of the-- We need electricity to live, we need it to survive, we need it to connect, especially in this moment. How that influences us. Julie, in terms of the finger-pointing that was happening in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, I believe said, "It was the frozen turbines, it was the green energy alternatives that we had put here that actually hindered this ability to get Texans the electricity they need." Is that true?
Julie: It's simply not true, it is false. The truth is the power grid was beset by failures, at every level of the system we saw challenges with outages along the wires in the power plants. There was a serious mismatch between supply and demand but the biggest outage that we saw, the biggest problem that we saw of all was with the natural gas system, both with problems in supply and with problems at power plant generators. I think what we saw with this narrative, this leap to blame renewables was grasping an out from accountability. There's just no way this wasn't advanced in bad faith because it was out there from the start, it's not grounded in fact and there's no basis.
Tanzina: I'm wondering, Julie, is renewable energy infrastructure less susceptible to disasters in general, or does it also have to be weatherized properly in order to manage more and more extreme climate?
Julie: All of our infrastructure has to be better prepared for climate impacts. For too long we've continued to build our infrastructure based on the past, but the fact is the past is no longer prologue. We have to build not just for the climate impacts we know are coming but the climate impacts that are here today. Just this year, the Texas grid has faced flooding, extreme heat, hurricanes, now this cold. It's not enough to just think about how the grid has worked in the past, it has to be prepared for the future. That's something that has to happen at every aspect of our infrastructure. That means, yes, these power plants had to be better prepared for cold weather, they also have to be prepared for extreme heat.
We see potential with this clean energy transition to move as I was saying before both to a more decentralized system to limit the vulnerability of any one outage risk. We also see what we know is so clear here, a systematic underinvestment in our infrastructure. As we transition to clean energy, we have a real opportunity to invest in grid modernization with infrastructure that is fully incorporating from the climate impacts we know we'll see.
Tanzina: Ivan, let's talk a little bit about that under-investment in infrastructure. It's almost become a joke, tongue in cheek for people to talk about the federal government talking about infrastructure week. We know the American infrastructure system including our bridges, our tunnels or roads are all struggling, but how much have we under-invested in our power systems here in the United States?
Ivan: Again, I'm going to turn to California because we saw over the course of years from 2017, in particular, through last year, the wildfires that cost scores of lives, decimated communities. A big driver of that was Pacific Gas and Electric which went bankrupt over all of these wildfires. As we saw in the bankruptcy, Pacific Gas and Electric did not maintain its equipment across the power system, its natural gas infrastructure, what they did do with the money was to give bonuses and money to shareholders.
Their primary responsibilities are to provide safe and reliable service to their consumers. PG&E is the largest utility within any individual state in the country. It failed to do its basic service. It ultimately was convicted of 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the deaths of people in the city of Paradise, which was destroyed. Again, because of a failure to maintain their equipment.
Tanzina: Julie, what types of communities are most at risk during these kinds of disasters? Does that factor into power grid planning? I guess the real question there is are low-income communities most affected are communities of color most affected by these types of disasters?
Julie: Yes, electricity underpins so much of our daily lives from the mundane to the critical services that keep society running. What we see right now in Texas, as outages persist, you get cascading disasters, once separate, and apart from whatever triggered the event, disasters as we see now right with the failure of water systems, at least in part owing to troubles with persistent and ongoing outages. This is a problem that affects all of society. That said, there are some populations who are especially vulnerable to long-duration outages like this.
Those least able to cope when the power goes out. That runs a variety of groups that includes senior citizens, low-income populations, communities of color, places where you can't readily evacuate or don't have money to be able to travel and stay in a hotel, somewhere where there's power, where the cost of losing the food that's in your refrigerator is too heavy to bear. These are major considerations. When we think about how important it is to keep the grid up, it's not just to keep everyday life going because yes, that's critically important. We can't, outage like this is simply untenable, but it also means we need to boost the resilience of these communities themselves.
That means that even if a power outage does occur, these most vulnerable populations have the ability to keep the lights on. Right, that's that top-down system-wide resilience at the same time you get that bottom-up resilience. One thing we don't talk about that much, but it's critically important here is the idea not just to keep the wires and the power plants online, but also energy efficiency and weatherization so that right when you're in your home, you can be able both-- This is for hot weather and cold weather, be more comfortable, be able to last longer should an outage occur.
Tanzina: We have heard stories we interviewed a reporter in Texas yesterday who said he was under multiple blankets wearing multiple layers and had done everything he could to stay warm. The images that are coming out of Texas of freezing items in homes and et cetera are just really, really unfortunate right now. Ivan, all of this is going to cost money, upgrades to electrical systems aren't cheap, but neither are blackouts. What does the decision-making look like maybe in Texas as a unique example, but what should government officials be thinking about when they're going to do this?
Ivan: Well, one of the big issues is where you apply government subsidies, the renewable energy industry is looking for the government to put into a place tax credits for things like batteries. We subsidize virtually every area of the energy industry, but some of those tax credits aren't applied to all of the renewable sectors, particularly right now batteries, there are technologies being used in various parts of the country, like Utah, for example, when we start talking about the need to address those who are disadvantaged, there's an apartment complex that has solar panels, and every apartment unit has a battery in it.
If the grid goes down, someone in their apartment can actually still have power because they have a battery in that apartment unit. There are creative ideas to address the needs to protect individual citizens of all economic statuses. There are ways to do this, but you do have to look at how we distribute even the tax subsidies which is the purview of the government.
From there where do you put the resources of the utilities in the approval process for-- Julie mentioned energy efficiency and weatherization, do you charge more to build power plants or do you take the investment and put it into weatherizing especially disadvantaged homes, helping them to get solar panels and batteries? It's a question of how you distribute the resources and not just how much might be available.
Tanzina: We end up paying for it one way or another. Ivan, we've got a little bit over a minute to go, but I just am curious whether or not the Biden administration has any-- I mean, they said they're going to send diesel fuel to Texas, but beyond that, are there issues, or do they have a plan to upgrade our electrical infrastructure in this country? Got about a minute left.
Ivan: Sure. The President has from the campaign trail until now made very clear that addressing climate change, bringing more clean energy. These are priorities of his administration and he has put people in place to push that forward. Now, the question is whether we will see the proof in that pudding.
Tanzina: Ivan Penn is energy correspondent for The New York Times. Julie McNamara is a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thanks to you both for joining us.
Julie: Thank you.
Ivan: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.