Electric lines in the ice and snow

Alabama’s Lessons From Texas

This article by our Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Tait, was originally published in Business Alabama.

What happened in Texas in February was a tragedy, with millions left without power amid freezing temperatures for days.  A recent opinion piece by Mr. George Clark of Manufacture Alabama discussed what a similar situation could mean for Alabama. While it’s true that better energy planning is needed, Mr. Clark missed the mark on the right solution for Alabama and left out key tools (cleaner and cheaper tools) to address Alabama’s energy needs.

As Mr. Clark noted, almost all energy sources had troubles in Texas, although not all suffered equally. Some government officials and other vested interests (mainly fossil fuel advocates) immediately jumped to conclusions, blaming the power outages on renewable energy sources, namely frozen wind turbines. It has since come to light that the main cause was actually frozen gas pipelines and instruments.  Gas and other fossil fuels like coal were especially hit hard with supply issues. Upwards of 40% of the Texas’s gas, coal, and nuclear fleet went offline at times. At its peak, about 30 gigawatts of mostly gas generation in Texas failed because of the cold temperatures. Wind power also had some outages, but not nearly on the same scale. In fact, ERCOT, Texas’ grid operator, reported that wind power was “the least significant factor” in the blackout. Furthermore, wind turbines can and do operate reliably in sub-zero temperatures if they are properly winterized, and wind turbines operate fine in much colder places, such as the northern Plains.

Texas relies heavily on gas for its energy supply, just like Alabama. Unfortunately, the recent disaster highlights the inherent risks associated with gas plants, gas supply, and an overreliance on gas. Many of the gas plants that went offline in Texas could not receive the gas they were promised, even if they had firm delivery gas contracts. And, as this goes to press, Alabama Power is currently proposing a massive expansion of their electric generation capacity with mostly gas. But gas, as we are seeing in Texas, is not the panacea many utilities claim it to be.

So, what can Alabama do to help protect us from a similar catastrophe? While we won’t know the full story until Texas authorities investigate further, Alabama can and should take immediate steps to prepare. While electricity outages are always a possibility, we can reduce the likelihood of occurrences and impacts by investing in more energy efficiency, having more robust demand response programs and reducing barriers to renewable energy in our state.  Alabama is woefully behind in deploying these lower cost resources that do not require the massive expenditures (and accompanying rate hikes) that a new gas plant requires.

As the least cost energy resource for customers, ramping up energy efficiency would lower bills for customers across the board. Energy efficiency is especially important to reduce peak stress on the grid in Southern states where much of our home heating comes from electricity–more efficient homes and businesses hold on to heating and cooling for longer periods and save energy and money year-round. But energy efficiency is also a public safety issue. If power goes out for a prolonged amount of time as it did in Texas, Alabama needs buildings that can keep people warm and safe. Unfortunately, Alabama Power ranks last in the nation in energy efficiency offerings among utilities. Utilities often oppose stringent energy efficiency standards and building codes in an attempt to sell more electricity and build more centralized power plants. While that may be good for utility profits, it’s not good for Alabamians or our businesses.

Furthermore, stronger and more robust demand response programs – which reduce or shift your energy usage – can help utilities manage load to keep the grid running when power plants go down and demand for electricity is still rising. Demand response programs can compensate residents for things like dialing back the temperature on their thermostat or shutting down a water heater during an emergency.

Finally, Alabama utilities and regulators have gone out of their way to block renewable energy sources in this state.  Look no further than the Alabama PSC’s recent decision, and Alabama Power’s increase in a “standby charge”, to keep taxing the sun for small scale solar producers in the state. Or the Alabama PSC’s recent decision to not allow 400 MW of solar plus battery storage. Smaller scale solar and energy storage projects can help us mitigate energy usage in record-breaking storms. These local sources of reliable and cost-effective energy are almost nowhere to be found in Alabama, even when compared to our Southeastern neighbors, and it’s critical to bring these sources online and scale them as quickly as possible. Neighboring states like Georgia are doing it, and they are creating jobs and stimulating the economy in the meantime. Utilities often oppose renewable energy resources, despite the myriad benefits for customers, because of the threat to their business model.

Preventing a disaster like Texas from happening in Alabama will require better planning and investing in lower cost resources such as energy efficiency, demand response, and renewable energy resources. Alabama should take heed of the tough lessons Texas learned: more gas plants are not a failsafe solution and banking on last century’s technology for a historic weather event can result in unprecedented failure.

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