It was “paradoxical” that Texas authorities asked their citizens to conserve energy in the hope of avoiding blackouts this month, says the Houston Chronicle, as most of their buildings lack sufficient insulation and other necessary features to do so. Indoor temperatures dropped into the 30s and 40s as outages hit, and during the periods in which heat was on, temperatures barely climbed into the 50s in many homes.
Energy efficiency “needs to be a public policy priority” in Texas, argues Dr. Eva Szalkai Csaky, executive director of the Hunt Institute for Engineering & Humanity, “not just for emergencies but to enhance home and building value, create decent jobs, and help businesses reduce utility costs.” Csaky hopes that a winter storm of this scale won’t be repeated in Texans’ lifetimes, but, “with climate change, the risk of extreme weather is ever-present, so we must seize every opportunity to reduce our energy consumption.”
Residential and commercial buildings account for 40% of US energy demand — more than industries (32%) or transportation (28%) — and for 74% of all electricity use. Energy gained through energy efficiency is also significantly less expensive than new power generation from any fuel source. Based on available technologies, energy efficiency could contribute 57% of CO2 reductions by 2030 in the US.
Like the US generally, over the last 10 years Texas has introduced energy efficiency requirements in its codes, but these apply only to new buildings. Indeed, according to the Federation of American Scientists, current and proposed policies focus primarily on setting minimum standards for strictly new homes through building codes.
Texas leads among US states in energy consumption and is the 5th largest energy consumer in the world. It currently ranks 29th among states in energy efficiency yet leads the US in potential for economical energy-efficiency improvements and residential energy-efficiency improvements. Csaky notes Texans’ “can-do spirit” can be impetus for harnessing the momentum of the 2021 freeze and transforming the markets for energy efficiency.
She explains that “energy efficiency can be a driver of resilience and economic progress, but it takes a multifaceted, comprehensive approach supported by smart policies — policies that include both sticks and carrots — that go beyond building codes to empower stakeholders through information, training and education as well as incentivizing energy-efficiency improvements.”
The Houston Chronicle article describes Csaky’s first-hand experience with energy efficiency and renewable energy action at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank. That program initially focused on retrofitting buildings in Eastern Europe built during the Soviet era without sufficient insulation. Increasing energy prices represented a disproportionate burden on low- and middle-income families and small businesses, providing the impetus for IFC’s program. Implemented energy-efficiency measures not only reduced utility bills significantly, they also improved the comfort levels and square footage price of retrofitted homes.
Additionally, small businesses reduced their energy bills and improved their competitiveness. New jobs were created by the energy and other service companies implementing the energy efficiency measures. And banks financed these projects with the “invisible” collateral of savings rather than hard collateral, without a single default in the $330 million portfolio of close to one thousand projects financed during the course of the program.
Texas, Csaky says in the Houston Chronicle, can build on such international experiences and best practices, leverage technologies, and convene stakeholders to foster such systemic sustainable solutions that improve both resilience and livelihoods.
What Caused The Blackout In Texas?
- Cold weather increased demand for natural gas for both heating and electrical generation well above projected requirements.
- The natural gas system in Texas is based on fracking, shale oil, and just-in-time delivery.
- The natural gas system in Texas isn’t winterized and allows high water content natural gas to flow through pipes, which subsequently froze in many places.
- Gas generation facilities weren’t winterized, and multiple failure conditions occurred in multiple plants due to icing of instruments and the like.
- Coal piles were drenched, then froze, preventing some of the remaining coal plants from operating, where they too weren’t suffering from iced instruments.
- One of Texas’ nuclear reactors, a quarter of the nuclear generation in the state, went offline, dropping an instant loss of 1,300 MW onto a straining grid.
- The rolling blackout grid structure hadn’t been well designed, solid operational processes weren’t in place, and it hadn’t been tested well.
- Texas’ ERCOT has very light transmission links to the rest of North America, having made a decision in the 1930s to have a separate grid with no federal oversight.
How Energy Efficiency Policies Could Have Made A Difference In Texas
Energy efficiency creates resilience while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency upgrades to homes and buildings reduce consumption by as much as one-third to one-half.
If Texas homes and buildings were more energy efficient, their demand on the system could have been reduced up to 50%, resulting in less severe outages.
More weather-proof buildings would be warmer during outages. Better-insulated homes, schools, and offices would have been more comfortable.
There would have been fewer burst pipes.
Resultant water shortages and contamination would have been minimized.
Energy efficiency improvements could have reduced stress on the grid.
More Reflections from the Houston Chronicle +
Energy efficiency makes communities more competitive, which is why countries from China to Mexico, India, Brazil, and South Africa prioritize energy efficiency, Csaky reminds us in Houston Chronicle. As the state emerges from the current crisis, Texas should look globally at more than 20 years of international experience for guidance in energy efficiency.
Many others are calling out Texas legislators, too, for failing to act to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.
The catastrophic infrastructure failures in Texas weren’t limited to power generation, says the NRDC, the state’s leaky and uninsulated buildings were a big part of the problem. Nearly 70% of Texas homes were built in 1999 or earlier, before the advent of modern energy codes designed to cut energy waste, meaning they have little insulation. Further, the state’s reliance on outdated and inefficient heating has grown significantly in the last several decades, with 35% of homes using gas furnaces and 60% using electric heating, most of those furnaces or minimum efficiency heat pumps.
Kate Zerrenner, who spent a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund, reviews how HB 2571, a bill in the Texas House introduced by now-Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, would have required state agencies, including the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s electric grid operator, to include the latest climate data in its strategic plans. It was killed on the House floor. The state leadership “refused to admit that climate change is already wreaking havoc on the state, from droughts to floods, hurricanes to the latest Texas winter storm.”
Zerrenner says that February’s Texas winter storm should act as a wake-up call. Doubling down on the same failed policies will not improve reliability or resilience of our grid or homes, she argues. Instead, “investing in energy efficiency is a resilience strategy that reduces carbon emissions and water demand while protecting people when extreme weather hits. It may not feel as urgent as demanding answers from ERCOT, but it is critically important.”
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