Big Freeze 2023: Can Solar Save Texas’ Fragile Power Grid?

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Last winter, Texans faced one of the most disruptive power crises in recent history. After an Arctic cold front brought extreme weather to the Lone State State, a series of power grid failures occurred, leaving over 4.5 million Texans without power for up to four days — in nearly record low temperatures.
The results were devastating. In the most recent report on the Big Freeze by Environment America (EA) et al., the researchers claimed that outages were directly linked to over 200 deaths that occurred during the storm. The estimated damages totaled around $195 billion. Beyond casualties and damages, countless Texas families were left without power in extreme temperatures, snow, sleet, and freezing rain.

The so-called “Big Freeze” highlighted the fragility of the Texas power grid in times of stress. But the event was quickly twisted by policymakers with a green-energy bone to pick.

Many of them blamed the outage on wind and solar generating units in the power grid — even though gas failures led to the largest gaps in power supply and accounted for 55% of unplanned outages, according to the EA report.
The report actually found that residential solar power could have played a key role in keeping the lights (and heat) on. Rooftop solar panels could have supplied more than enough power to meet Texans’ needs during 11 of the 13 days where production fell short (during mid- to late-February).

As extreme weather continues, it’s clear that rooftop solar and storage solutions will be essential — especially for Texans. Let’s take a closer look at why.

Are Texans Ready for a Post-Big-Freeze Winter?

Unfortunately, extreme weather events are only getting more common — and more severe. This is especially worrying for Texas, which has a unique deregulated power market that exists outside of the control of federal regulators.
As Texas Tribune’s Mitchell Ferman explains, this is by design to encourage free-market competition. But as a result, a group of state agencies and a nonprofit (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) are in charge of the grid’s operations, and it’s up to them how they base their rules on laws passed by state lawmakers.
Texans did see a few laws passed to address Big Freeze fragility in the grid, largely aimed at winter preparedness or “weatherization mandates.” But, again, since the energy market is deregulated, it’s up to the agencies to actually implement them.

And that’s where things have gone awry. Energy experts cited in the Texas Tribune piece say the legislation allowed too much leeway for companies to postpone weatherization improvements — which can take months or years to implement. A lack of data also makes it challenging to gauge how ready or unready power and gas facilities are for the next harsh winter.

Of course, this is a big problem for Texans who are more concerned with their family’s safety than power companies’ bottom lines. After all, the Big Freeze affected Texans in unpredictable ways. The casualties were widely covered — caused by crashes, falls, fires, hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and unpowered medical equipment. But far more pervasive was the type of anxiety that can’t be quantified.

Millions of people couldn’t cook, call for help, or heat their homes for days. And now they’re faced with the fact that it could happen again.

Untapped Potential: Rooftop Solar Can Power a Third of Texas

Despite being erroneously scapegoated in the fallout of the Big Freeze, solar could have greatly reduced the damages — and probably saved lives. Utility-scale solar (that is, using solar at the power-grid level) and small-scale solar (such as residential rooftop solar panels) are vastly underdeveloped in Texas.
In fact, the EA’s report found that rooftop solar can reduce the personal impact of future energy crises, and that utility-scale solar can help stabilize the grid against unexpected stressors.

The researchers found that if Texans adopt rooftop solar, they alone could power as much as one-third of the state’s total electricity use. That’s an energy potential of 97,800MW — of which Texans have currently realized a mere 1,166MW.
This means that even if Texans realize only half of their solar potential, it’d be a massive win for clean energy and, at the family level, a hedge against extreme weather, the outages it may cause in the future, and an energy industry that doesn’t seem to be acting in their best interest.

Of course, taking advantage of the nation’s vast rooftop solar potential would not only help build a more reliable grid but also reduce other environmental and public health impacts of Texas’ current energy system. As we’ll discuss in more depth later, the extreme weather events that can cause power crises are linked to climate change — to which power generation is a major contributor.

Rooftop Solar + Battery Solutions Can Power Homes (Even Without Sunlight)

All that to say, a major piece of the energy crisis puzzle has been beneath our noses the entire time. Now that Texans are painfully aware of their grid’s fragility and the few precautions that have been taken to correct them, rooftop solar panels have taken on a new significance.

Even if the grid experiences outages, most residential solar and battery setups will keep the lights and heat on. Excess power generated can even be sent back to the grid to help your community — while saving money on electricity bills, gaining independence from an unpredictable grid, and contributing to the clean energy transition.

Of course, the limitations of solar are well known. The common no-sun-no-power fears are understandable, but they misinterpret what solar is solving. Even when the grid would otherwise be down, solar panels can keep a home running. From a grid-wide resolution, rooftop solar also lifts the burden from the grid, increasing its resilience against large scale outages.

More than that, solar batteries can charge during sunlit periods to keep energy flowing during sunless ones. As battery capacity and capabilities advance, especially with technologies like vehicle-to-building energy transfer, the efficiency of solar will only grow. Texans should be aware that not all solar batteries will work during a planned or unexpected outage — so they should consult solar energy experts.

At the end of the day, rooftop solar panels can help Texans rest easier knowing that they have options if the grid faces more turbulence in the future. As we’ll cover later, they also come with a lot of financial perks from the US government, the Lone Star State, and local utility companies. These mainly come in the form of sizeable tax deductions, solar rebates, and credits toward your energy bill. In this way, solar is also a very attractive investment.

Stopping the Next Big Freeze: The Grid-Wide Benefits of Solar

There’s another issue we haven’t wrestled with yet. When mild- or high-stress events occur, from a cold winter to the Big Freeze level power crisis, it puts more strain on the grid, causing more fossil fuels to be burned. That means a higher-than-normal contribution to climate change, which in turn means more extreme weather events in the future.

Solar is key to breaking this cycle.

We’ve talked at length about rooftop solar panels, such as residential or rooftop applications, but when you take small-scale and utility-scale solar together, that’s when you really see the full potential of this energy source — not only as a way to reliably power Texas but to curb climate change along with the stress it puts on the world’s power systems and livelihood.

As the researchers in the EA report state, small-scale solar generates electricity right when it’s needed, reducing the demand on the power grid and thus reducing the burden on centralized power plants.

If more Texans adopt solar panels, it will significantly reduce the burden on the grid during extreme weather events, keeping costs low, harmful emissions minimal, and reliability high. For maximum solar resiliency, a “distributed energy storage” system in the form of batteries can supply power to homes and the grid even when the sun isn’t shining.

But that isn’t even considering the potential of implementing solar panels at the utility scale. By bolstering more of the grid with renewable energy like wind and solar, Texas’ grid will have significantly more resilience during high-stress events and basic year-round operations. This will also let the grid produce more energy with fewer fossil fuels.

Solar Isn’t the Whole Solution — But It’s a Big Part of It

Of course, solar isn’t the sole answer to the fragility of Texas’ power grid. But it is a big part of the overall solution. When you’re powering a state, you need an intricate web of unique power sources that can make up for each other’s weaknesses. So, while the EA researchers concluded that rooftop solar could have significantly reduced the damage of the Big Freeze, they’re also aware that it won’t solve the grid’s issues alone.

After all, solar is inherently an intermittent resource. Since the output of solar panels depends on the availability of sunlight, and the sun isn’t out all day, solar requires complementary power sources. Wind power is an excellent choice. While wind is also intermittent, it isn’t limited by a day and night cycle, so wind and solar can bolster one another during times of low power. Neither requires fossil fuels, and neither contributes to climate change.

And as we learned during the Big Freeze, traditional power sources require complementary sources too. The availability of wind and solar during the Big Freeze, however limited, took a significant burden off of the grid. That means renewable energy kept some Texans’ homes warm longer than they would have been otherwise. With more utility-scale solar, Texans can have an even more efficient and sophisticated power grid.

We can’t pass up an opportunity to bolster the resilience of the grid with more solar and wind, not just to curb harmful emissions that make Texas and our planet a bit less beautiful each year, but also to ensure that the heat and lights will stay on as conditions get less predictable. Solar panels play a critical role in achieving this, and thankfully, Texans can start brightening their state’s future while grid operators are dragging their feet.

There are Big Incentives for Rooftop Solar Panels (For Now)

Of course, we don’t need to relitigate the challenges of getting deregulated Texas power companies to weatherize their equipment and increase their solar and wind capacity. It seems that the most significant and timely solution is for Texans to band together and power their homes through their own means.
Thankfully, installing rooftop solar panels won’t be a sacrifice for Texans. The US and Texas offer incentives to citizens who install renewable energy sources on their property. Of course, these incentives won’t be offered forever. Right now, the iron is hot — even the federal tax credit is getting smaller each year, and it will be gone by 2024 unless plan for renewing it come through. Rooftop solar is an incredible investment in its own right, but the deal is made a lot sweeter so long as these rebates and tax credits are available.

Here are just a few of the major benefits that Texans with rooftop solar will see:

  • Lower Bills & Solar Buyback: One of the biggest incentives for solar is the massive effect it can have on your energy bills. You’ll see significant energy savings, and you might also be able to leverage net metering. Net metering is like a partnership between you and your retail electricity provider (REP). It lets you roll over excess solar power to earn a credit on your energy bill. You’re essentially selling your excess power to your utility company — and this can really add up.
  • Help Power Your Home & Community: We’ve already talked about the power of rooftop solar panels in Texas to help increase the resilience of the grid. When you add solar to your home, you’re removing a burden from the grid and benefitting your community too.
  • 26% Federal Tax Credit: The federal solar investment tax credit (ITC) lets you claim a tax deduction of up to 26% of the cost of your solar photovoltaic system. There’s no maximum amount that can be claimed. In 2023, the deductible rate will drop to 22%, and by 2024, the solar tax credit will be removed entirely unless it is somehow renewed.
  • REP Incentives: Some Texas REPs offer their own solar rebate programs, like Reliant and CPS Energy. Currently, CPS offers a $2,500 rebate for installing rooftop solar panels — and an extra $500 for using locally-sourced panels. Austin Energy has a similar rebate, and they pay $0.097 for every kilowatt-hour your panels can generate.
  • Distributor Incentives: Distributors like Oncor also offer a Residential Solar Program. This program helps offset the costs of installing rooftaop solar by giving the solar installer and customer a paid incentive. The exact amount depends on your location, solar potential, and the agreed percentage shared between the customer and installer.
  • Increased Home Value: A report by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkely Laboratory found that installing photovoltaic solar panels to a home can add around $15,000 to its resale value. The researchers concluded that home buyers are consistently willing to pay more for homes with solar.
  • Renewable Energy Property Tax Exemption: Typically, as your home value increases, you pay higher property taxes too. But in Texas, you can take advantage of the renewable energy property tax exemption, which means you don’t pay extra taxes on the value your solar panels add to your home.
  • Transition to Green Energy: Rooftop solar helps keep Texas and the world cleaner. Since solar is a renewable and clean resource, it reduces the emission of air pollutants, like nitrogen oxide and mercury, and it curbs climate change by lessening fossil fuel power generation.

Wrapping it Up

Despite the devastation of the Big Freeze power crisis, little has been done to prepare the grid for the coming winter. Some policymakers have used the crisis to erroneously dissuade the use of renewable energy, even though gas failures were mostly to blame for outages and complete rooftop solar panel adoption could technically power up to a third of the state.

But, even if Texas’ deregulated power market isn’t doing much to weatherize the grid for the future, Texans can do what they have always done best: pave their own path to help their families and community. After all, the EA report found that the widespread use of rooftop solar can help families keep the heat on and have massive benefits for the Lone Star State’s grid overall.

Beyond powering individual homes during outages, residential solar panels can improve the reliability of the entire Texas power grid. The EA’s retrospective analysis actually found that rooftop solar panels could have severely limited the effects of the Big Freeze power crisis, saving lives, keeping millions of Texan families comfortable, and avoiding billions of dollars in damages.

In this way, Texans can help themselves and their neighbors by installing rooftop solar panels. This will keep their homes running when the grid is down, lessen the burden on the fossil fuel dominated grid, and ease climate change to avoid more extreme-weather-linked power crises in the future.

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