There are many ways to look at the nearly unprecedented disaster in Texas and see what you want to see. If you’re cranky and like fossil fuels, it’s the fault of renewable energy. If you’re cranky and believe in global climate change then it’s the fault of frozen natural gas pipes. If you like big government, it’s the fault of deregulation. If you hate big government, it’s too much regulation. Guess what? It’s all of the above. But Texas can fix it by reorganizing their grid around storage and electric vehicle support.
If this sounds like a crazy thing that a Yankee would write from their warm home in New York I’d just like to point out here that I’m a second generation Texan and have spent the night, like most Texpats, talking to my friends and family back home worrying about them. I love Texas and I know Texas can do better.
There are two quotes from Sam Houston, the former President of the Republic of Texas and governor of the state, that I think are important here. I’ll start with the hopeful one:
“Texas will again lift its head and stand among the nations. It ought to do so, for no country upon the globe can compare with it in natural advantages.”
The state has fossil fuels below the ground, abundant sun above it, and no shortage of wind blowing across the massive state. I’m not sure that Sam Houston envisioned wind turbines, but he was an extremely smart person and I don’t think it would have surprised him. There’s been a tussle between fracking and coal and wind, a debate no doubt to be exacerbated by all of this (personally, I think the answer is probably more solar in the mix).
I’m going to set that aside for now. For the purposes of this article it doesn’t matter where the energy comes from, it just matters that Texas has its own grid and has an abundance of potential power sources. Texas is also not dense. The largest city, my hometown of Houston, is low density compared to other places. This means, among other things, that cars are a necessity for many. In terms of the environment and energy consumption (and quality of life) it would be more efficient for density to increase and people to not need cars as often as they do. I am not expecting that to happen tomorrow.
Therefore, there’s going to be a long period in time in Texas where people need cars and buses and garbage trucks. Texas should ramp up their shift towards electric vehicles. This means that Texas will need more power generation, but this also means that Texas can have more vehicle storage. A recent analysis by the Department of Energy showed that the growth in capacity should meet demand for production. As the report says:
“The overall conclusion the analysis in this paper demonstrates is that, based on historical growth rates, sufficient energy generation and generation capacity is expected to be available to support a growing EV fleet as it evolves over time, even with high EV market growth”
So let’s assume that Texas has the ability to meet power demands (reasonable) and that people will still chose to drive and not have the option to take a train (also reasonable). Let’s assume more people buy electric cars. This isn’t crazy. Texas, as of August 2020, had the fourth most EVs in the nation with 22,600. Additionally, Tesla just moved to Texas and Texans love buying things made in Texas.
If we look at current EVs, on the smaller end you have a base Nissan Leaf, which has a 40 kWh battery. On the top end you have a Tesla Model S Long Range with 100 kwh. Many, like the Volt, are somewhere in between. Texas is on the high end of energy usage with about 39.2 kWh per day, which means that on the low end in a natural disaster like the one we have a Nissan Leaf can power a house for a day (I do understand that heating needs require more energy, but will assume people are smart enough to not run every light and will moderate their heating usage to what they need) and a Tesla for a couple of days.
Most people cannot do this. There’s some talk about how to do this at a commercial scale and people have done this ad hoc before, but your average person with a Tesla is just as cold as a person with a gas-powered car in Texas with no power right now (though if you have a big diesel truck you can maybe sleep in your truck parked out in the street). It’s snowy and icy out and people shouldn’t be driving anyway.
There is a large-scale solution and one that Texas should immediately begin adopting, promoting, and subsidizing as an effort to take advantage of the state’s many sources of power generation (some of which, like solar and wind, occur unevenly across the day): Vehicle-to-Grid chargers.
We may have a future where there are large battery centers in neighborhoods storing electricity generated by solar and wind resources, but it hasn’t happened yet. People do own electric cars and people will own more electric cars. This may not be happening if you have a Tesla, but it already happens if you have Tesla solar panel or Powerwall.
And Texas already has this on a small scale. An energy research organization in Austin called Pecan Street has built a vehicle-to-grid testing center where electric vehicles are tied to the grid and smart chargers and can move power back-and-forth between cars and the grid, which helps reduce peak demand and save money.
Right now, the state is implementing rolling outages across the State of Texas with the idea that having even a couple of hours of power can help. Imagine being able to pull a few hours from your car at night when it gets cold?
This isn’t something that could happen overnight, but it would be a shame to waste this tragedy.
Ok, time for one more Sam Houston quote:
“All new states are invested, more or less, by a class of noisy, second-rate men who are always in favor of rash and extreme measures, but Texas was absolutely overrun by such men.”
There are a lot of ways to get upset and point fingers after an event like this (and there is some finger pointing that is due), but Texas would be better served if the first-rate men and women of the state got together to promote a long-term solution that takes advantage of the state’s many advantages to diminish the state’s many future risks.