“Once in a Generation” Weather

“Once in a generation” is a term we have heard every few months lately as it pertains to the weather. Over the last few years in North America alone, it has been used in reference to heatwaves and fires in the West, floods in the Midwest and Northeast, hurricanes in the Southeast, and the 2019 polar vortex. The latest application is, of course, the winter storm currently battering Texas and large swaths of the United States, leaving at least 2.7 million people in frigid homes without power as of the morning of February 17 (ERCOT).

It should be a given that when discussing weather patterns over time, at a certain point, it becomes part of a shifting climate. With the reinforcing feedback loop of climate change continuing to progress, more “once in a generation” disruptions are bound to occur in short order across other regions of North America and the globe.

Not only is weather becoming more extreme, but it is also becoming harder to predict. As Princeton Energy Systems PhD Jesse Jenkins said, “the past is no longer a good guide for the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.” This means we need to put in place proactive resiliency measures at each pain point. Changes should be made both to large scale grid infrastructure and to the homes and businesses at the grid edge.

Leaving aside the political blame game currently taking place, it is undeniable that the current (fossil fuel generation-dominated) power infrastructure in Texas is proving to be dangerously inadequate. ERCOT territory is not the only area with this problem, it just so happens to presently be under the media microscope.

Large scale grid infrastructure upgrades take time and political will to implement, but they are crucial changes to make. Increased digitization of grid operations is a good place to start. However, we need investment in areas including transmission, long-duration energy storage, distribution-level microgrids, and expanding the deployment of clean energy generation assets that are equipped to operate in extreme weather.

At the grid-edge, we need policy from the federal and state governments that makes it affordable for property owners to weatherize the built environment. More buildings need to install rooftop solar and behind-the-meter energy storage, and rate design should reward this behavior through enabling demand charge avoidance and time-of-use power arbitrage. Putting in place programs like vehicle-to-grid can also make a difference over the longer term. A lot of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of public service commissions and utilities—some of which have been far more proactive than others (credit where it is due: Green Mountain Power).

We are far better off in a scenario in which we overbuild resilience than one in which we are under-insured. Our options are straightforward—we can spend proactively to make infrastructure upgrades at the risk of high near-term cost at a time when economic stimulus is sorely needed. Alternatively, we can continue to respond reactively to each climate-induced extreme weather crisis.

Every crisis is unique, but for each one, high costs from reduced economic activity, personal discomfort and property damage are the best-case scenario. At worst there is loss of life. Let us take the initiative of investing now, such that our infrastructure is resilient enough to face these consistent “once in a generation” weather events, and it is clean enough to avoid exacerbating them.

Author: Saul Muskin

Image: Marii Siia via Unsplash