Recently, the polar vortex served to create chaos in the state of Texas with over 4.5 million homes and businesses finding themselves without power, many for several days. This resulted from a variety of problems that compounded one another. Now that the state has recovered, it is important to reflect back upon the situation in order to determine critical lessons. The reality is that there are many things the Texas power outages can teach us about solar energy.
What Happened in Texas?
Before focusing on the lessons that can be learned, it is important to fully understand what actually happened during this situation. Excessive cold temperatures served to shut down many systems that were critical for delivering power. With reduced capacity to generate electricity and high levels of demand, the remaining systems were unable to meet the needs of customers. This resulted in the decision to engage in rolling blackouts.Typically, when an area has difficulties in generating power, the solution is to rely on neighbors from elsewhere in the power grid. However, Texas’ power grid is intentionally disconnected from the two large national power grids. This was done in order for Texas’ utility companies to avoid being regulated by the federal government as a cost savings measure, but also prevented companies from being able to access assistance during the power outage.
Lesson 1: Most Sources Can Fail
The initial blame in the media from the power companies in Texas was laid at the feat of wind power. However, wind only provides a relatively small fraction of Texas’ power needs. After further investigation, it was found that the failures were the result of virtually every aspect of the energy sector.
A nuclear power plant that provides electricity to over a million home had to be shut down after the weather sent its pump system into failure. Windmills in the state that were not equipped with de-icing technology shuttered to a stop after freezing. However, the largest problems came from natural gas. The natural gas system in Texas was not created for these types of temperatures. As such, natural gas simply froze within the pipelines in many places, making it impossible to get heat to homes. Together, the failure of many systems contributed to the problem.
A review of data from Texas shows that one area that did not overly fail was solar power. While solar power saw reduced power generation in some areas due to snowfall that obstructed panels, graphs of energy output show continued performance during the day time, with solar even increasing output while other areas failed.
This is not to say that solar is a fail-safe system. However, solar has been documented as being rather reliable even in the coldest of climates. One takeaway from the Texas crisis is that solar is one of the more reliable systems overall in extreme temperatures as excessive cold does not prevent solar panels from functioning.
Lesson 2: The Need for Microgrids
The failure of the grid in Texas illustrates one of the problems with the design of our current power systems. If a large grid fails, it will have a significant toll. When this failure occurs in specific situations, lives can even be put in danger. The problem here is not necessarily that power grids are poorly designed. It is normal for even the most reliable of grids to have occasional problems.
However, the size of the grids in Texas led to a much greater impact than was necessary. One overarching takeaway is the need for microgrids. Microgrids are small grids that operate within a larger system and have the capacity to switch off of the main grid and serve as their own mini grid.
Thus, when the overarching grid experiences issues, microgrids are able to separate themselves and function independently, minimizing the extent of power outages. Microgrids already exist in many areas; however, not many were present in Texas.
The larger concept highlighted by the need for microgrids is the need for more community-generated power. Solar power is a perfect example of a method to easily create community-generated microgrids. In fact, these already exist in many areas. The Santa Barbara Unified School District has a large solar microgrid project. These types of community-based grids will help ensure that power can be maintained if there are failures at the macro level.
Lesson 3: Solar Safety Net
It is likely that residents of Texas would not have expected to ever go days without power in freezing temperatures. After all, their state is typically resistant to cold weather. However, the polar vortex brought extreme cold to the region. With global warming, this should not be seen as a rare occurrence but rather one that will likely occur more frequently over time.
When systems fail, solar can provide an important safety net, helping homes stay warm during the day. Furthermore, people with solar power and batteries would be able to store excess energy during the day to mitigate the negative effects of a down grid at nighttime.
Texas has shown that implementing residential solar will keep homes better prepared to resist power problems brought on by severe weather. Again, while solar panels are not completely fail safe, they are more resilient than many other methods of power, leading solar to be a strong consideration in efforts to mitigate these types of problems.
The recent Texas power outage exposed a number of major problems regarding the traditional design of power delivery systems as well as some issues specific to the state. It also highlighted some important realities about solar power. First, with most sources able to fail, diversification is important which involves investing in solar. Secondly, microgrids can be effective lifelines for communities when the greater grid fails. Finally, solar panels represent a bit of a safety net for homes and businesses as they provide power even when other traditional methods go offline. In summary, investing in solar can greatly mitigate the problems encountered in these types of situations in the future.