When it comes to modernizing power grids, the Lonestar State can lead by example.
By Alexander Rozenfeld and Eugene Han
The following commentary was originally published in May, 2020. It has been updated to reflect recent events.
Throughout history, civilizations have used catastrophes as mechanisms for innovation to support the future well-being of their people. In the 19th century, multiple cholera epidemics broke out in New York, causing traffic jams of horses and carriages as people fled for the perceived safety of the suburbs. These outbreaks resulted in the building of underground wastewater systems and green spaces like New York City’s Central Park to make the city more livable and healthy. COVID-19 may have similar effects in large urban areas around the world.
Early evidence shows that the coronavirus pandemic may reverse the national trend of people moving back to cities.
Texas, already reeling from the COVID-19 energy crash, now faces unprecedented winter weather that has driven its outmoded power infrastructure to the breaking point. Even before the recent blizzards, evidence showed that lifestyle changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic may reverse the two-decade-long national trend of people moving back to cities. This would undermine efforts to increase both urban energy efficiency and the implementation of so-called “smart cities,” which integrate energy management, transportation, and social services. The situation also highlights the need to modernize already strained power grids across Texas.
Biggest and hottest
Texas is among the nation’s hottest and most energy-deregulated states. Texas’s unwieldy urban sprawl shows itself in places like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio — some of America’s fastest-growing cities. The Texas Triangle, as it is known, is home to more than 18 million residents. From 2010 to 2018, the state’s metropolitan areas were the only places in the U.S. to have added more than 1 million people.
This rapid growth, combined with record heat waves and droughts, has often strained Texas’s electrical power reserve, which faces even more demand if Texans shift in a permanent way to working from home and if the record summer heatwaves intensify. With these changes may also come a future decrease in power reliability, which would affect both businesses and employees working from home.
COVID-19 offers an opportunity for a fresh look at how the state organizes its energy infrastructure.
These possible changes in energy demand emphasize the need to modernize the aging networks of power grids across Texas. The good news is that COVID-19 offers an opportunity for a fresh look at how the state organizes its energy infrastructure. The future could bring a greater focus on distributed energy resources, which can provide robust and resilient power capable of coping with the effects of the pandemic and of Hurricane Harvey-type climate events.
Modernizing Texas’ power grid will also help fill a growing employment void created by the depressed state of Texas’s fossil fuel industry, which has seen thousands of jobs lost since the pandemic began. According to the Texas Tribune, the state saw more than 26,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry were lost in the month of April. Texas is already home to more than 263,000 power grid workers. Pandemic or no, jobs in the energy sector are expected to grow. Between 2015 and the end of 2019, electric power generation added 177,000 jobs, energy infrastructure created 156,000, and energy efficiency an impressive 400,000, according to a report by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the LBJ Urban Lab.
In the short term, the health needs caused by the pandemic are paramount. But we must also look to the future and be sure to facilitate an economic recovery. By embarking on a smarter and less carbon-reliant energy future, Texas has the chance to serve as a future model for supporting the health and safety of its citizens and its economy.