Texas’ Icy Disaster Makes the Case for Uniting the US Grid

Take a look at the map above. That WI-EI Seam is the border between the Western and Eastern interconnections. All the blue in the Midwest marks where wind is an abundant resource. The gold in the Southwest means abundant solar. The green bathing Texas is both. While the state is still highly dependent on fossil fuels for energy generation, it’s actually rich in renewable resources. If all the interconnections actually played nice with one another, Texas could be the place where they met in the middle, exporting solar and wind energy to its neighbors and importing their power when needed. You know, like during a polar vortex.

Notice the time stamps at the bottom of the map. The peak load in most places is between 4 pm and 9 pm, Kroposki says, as people return home and cook dinner and turn on heaters or AC units. If it’s 2 pm in Arizona, the sun is blazing on solar panels just as folks on the East Coast are ramping up their energy usage. “You could be pushing solar energy back east,” Kroposki says. Then as the Midwest moves out of peak usage, it could push wind energy back west.

Also, on the days the sun isn’t shining in the Southwest, those states could import wind power from Texas or the Midwest. If the wind refuses to blow in the Midwest, those states could import solar power from the Southwest or Texas. Ironically enough, Texas—the utility outlaw—could be a uniting force between all these regions.

But the country needs to build out high voltage lines to more intimately intertwine the three regions. “These kinds of things would help integrate more renewables, because you could geographically distribute them,” Kroposki says. “You could put more renewables in the locations where the resources are really good, and move the power easier around the country.”

“The thing that holds all of this up is: Who’s going to pay for this infrastructure?” Kroposki adds. “It benefits everybody, but not in a way that’s easy to collect dollars from.” Realistically, the funding would come down from the feds. President Joe Biden has, after all, promised to build out green energy infrastructure to create 10 million jobs.

Prepare for mountains of red tape, though: We’re talking about miles upon miles of lines crossing through multiple states, each with their own regulatory hurdles. “I think we’re in a world where it’s going to continue to be difficult to site large, long distance transmission lines, and we suggest greater authority for [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] to be able to do that,” says Victor, the coauthor on that National Academies report. “But we’re under no illusion that you’ll wave a magic wand to make that problem easy.”

While we’re waiting for that to happen, there may be another way to reinforce our grids with renewables on the local level: microgrids. Northern California’s Blue Lake Rancheria, for instance, has loaded up on solar panels and batteries so it can “island” itself from the main grid if necessary. Last fall—the peak of the state’s increasingly dire wildfire season—the local utility cut power to swaths of California to keep from sparking a blaze, and some 10,000 locals headed to the rancheria for fuel and supplies.

Without power, gas pumps don’t work and water treatment plants go offline, so you get an additional water crisis, as happened in Texas. But in this case, the rancheria served as a powered-up oasis. “The Blue Lake microgrid is a small drop in the bucket for the California grid, so it didn’t make a big difference,” says Peter Lehman, founding director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center, which helped develop the microgrid. “But it’s a role model for how we can respond to those situations in the future.”

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