How to keep the power on when ‘magical’ grid fails

By Kristi E. Swartz, Edward Klump, Arianna Skibell | 04/27/2021 07:13 AM EDT

Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, renewables and the Texas blackouts are raising new questions about how to protect the electric grid.

The Olson family in Argyle, Texas, lost power on Feb. 15 following a huge winter storm. Widespread blackouts in the state that week have spurred discussion about the best ways for electricity customers to prepare for outages during hurricanes, heat waves and other types of extreme weather.

The Olson family in Argyle, Texas, lost power on Feb. 15 following a huge winter storm. Widespread blackouts in the state that week have spurred discussion about the best ways for electricity customers to prepare for outages during hurricanes, heat waves and other types of extreme weather. Chris Rusanowsky/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Blackouts in Texas served as another reminder of how critical the nation’s grid is to everyday life — and what happens when it fails.

The prolonged outages, triggered by a massive winter storm, also reignited conversations of how residents and businesses can be more resilient in case the grid goes down again. From more intense hurricanes to heat waves, frequent extreme weather is teaching everyone from policymakers to utility executives to consumers that having additional options for electricity may serve as a critical lifeline.

The solutions are not that simple, however. Rooftop solar remains cost-prohibitive for some, and generators come with safety and emissions concerns. And those measures may only serve as a Band-Aid if there are not policies in place to support them.


Grid experts and clean energy advocates argue this is where the Biden administration can step in. Using his "Build Back Better" agenda, the president has asked for widespread policies that would encourage better building codes, demand-side management, and the deployment of solar and batteries at critical facilities. Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure spending proposal includes a national clean energy standard, more money for energy-efficient and affordable housing, an extension of federal tax breaks for renewable energy projects, and billions for electric vehicle charging stations.

"I think it’s a federal conversation," said Katie Ottenweller, Southeast director for Vote Solar. "If we’re saying build back and do it more resilient, cleaner and more equitably, this would be the way that would check all of the boxes."

Biden’s so-called American Jobs Plan would set aside billions of dollars to make vulnerable communities more resilient against hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other extreme weather; focus on land restoration and protection in coastal areas; and funnel research and development money to historically Black colleges and universities as part of a widespread effort to spur clean energy innovation and job creation.

But Biden’s grid proposals face a steep road in Congress. And in the meantime, steps like adding solar panels and generators are a far cry from enabling consumers to go off the grid altogether.

"The grid is a magical, magical machine," said Chris Burgess, the director of projects for the Africa, Islands and Southeast Asia Program for RMI, a nonprofit formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute. "Consumers who go off the grid are doing it for philosophical purposes."

Most Americans couldn’t afford to go off the grid even if they wanted to. Indeed, the sweeping power outages in Texas in February highlighted the inequities that vulnerable communities face during emergencies. People in lower-income areas are more likely to have underlying health conditions and live in older, poorly insulated homes, where temperatures drop quickly when the power goes out in subfreezing weather.

"When the lights go out and there’s no heat, where there are asthmatic adults or children in the household, that’s a problem," Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and an expert on wealth and racial disparities tied to the environment, said in a recent interview. "Being in the cold can be a trigger for an asthma episode."

Seeking solar

Hurricane Irma sparked discussion of on-site solar and storage generation in Florida in 2017. A similar conversation about microgrids in California came about more recently when San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had to shut off the power to prevent deadly wildfires from spreading.

Building microgrids doesn’t mean adding solar panels and a large battery bank to every home. Rather, schools that double as public shelters would be outfitted with such on-site generation, allowing the institution to be self-sufficient after a disaster and save money in electricity costs throughout the year.

Duke Energy Florida has agreed to install a solar storage system at a public shelter for medically dependent residents in St. Petersburg, for example. Another idea is to target schools in low-income communities because those residents tend to have the weakest housing stock and the fewest resources to evacuate during a hurricane, Ottenweller of Vote Solar said.

"Let’s make this investment in vulnerable communities," she said.

Electricity projects in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Hawaii offer other examples. Puerto Rico’s grid, decimated during Hurricane Maria in 2017, is now segmented into four quadrants as a strategy to boost its resiliency in future disasters.

The four microgrids operate independently but can still communicate with each other, said Burgess with RMI. He manages the institute’s islands project management staff and a portfolio of 144 megawatts of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects across the Caribbean region.

The microgrids are placed on the U.S. territory’s distribution system instead of the transmission one, turning a centralized power grid into a decentralized one.

Burgess said baseload power plants and utility-scale solar and wind farms will remain a key part of the grid for decades. But fast-growing solar and storage can serve as backups to customers if the local distribution power lines go down, Burgess said.

"In aggregate, it’s super powerful," he said of distributed energy resources.

He pointed to Hawaii, where utilities are using software to synchronize solar and storage to be used during certain hours of the day as dispatchable power.

"The future is electrified, everything is online," he said. "It sounds like science fiction, but it’s literally happening."

Burgess said there’s momentum behind the concept following disasters like the one in Texas, and the idea is to start small.

Ideal initial sites for microgrids include water treatment plants, cellphone towers and other emergency services, he said.

"You’re going to have a hard time finding any public official, any politician, any sane, rational person in a position of authority to argue with supporting critical facilities directly after a disaster," Burgess said. "The decisionmakers can’t make excuses anymore."

Decentralized energy sources will bring resilience to vulnerable communities, said Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The No. 1 thing that could have protected people is if they had their own rooftop or community solar systems and their own battery storage system," she said. "Energy sources are centralized right now, and because of the lack of winterization of gas plants and other electricity sources in Texas, that centralized power system is not able to deliver to households."

A chief challenge to on-site generation, however, has been the electric companies themselves: When it comes to customers having rooftop solar to lower their power bills, use more "green" energy or be more self-sufficient, the barriers go up. Most electric companies still use an arcane business model that rewards them for investing millions of dollars into major infrastructure projects and may not be keen on paying customers who produce their own electricity while still relying on power lines managed by the utility.

"If this doesn’t work for their business model, then they need to propose reforms," Ottenweller said. "If [electric companies] are opposing this, then they are a part of the problem, and we need to fix it."

After Irma, some Florida lawmakers floated the idea of a pilot program to install on-site solar generation and storage at critical facilities in the highly vulnerable Keys. The bill went nowhere, but solar advocates were pleased that it started a discussion.

"There’s no such thing as a hurricane-proof grid," Ottenweller said. "The power is going to go out."

Fossil fuels

Having backup generation at home is an enticing option for residents worried about losing grid power during hurricanes, floods or icy weather.

"Sales of generators just spike in the run-up to a big storm and in the immediate aftermath," said Paul Hope, senior home and garden editor for Consumer Reports, an independent nonprofit that rates products.

For many, the solution is an old school one: fossil fuel products such as gasoline, natural gas, liquid propane or diesel.

Generators offer the promise of keeping some or all of a home plugged in with electricity. But the machines aren’t without baggage, including emissions and safety concerns.

Hope described two broad categories of residential generators — home standby and portable units.

Home standby models typically use natural gas or liquid propane and kick on if there’s an outage, essentially providing seamless power.

Hope called these generators the "gold standard." They can range from $6,000 to $10,000 or more to buy and install.

A home standby setup can run indefinitely off gas service from a local utility, according to Hope. For liquid propane, he said, a generator could run around the clock for 10 days or more on a given tank, depending on the demand and the tank’s size.

Portable generators, on the other hand, tend to be much cheaper and comprise the majority of U.S. purchases of home backups that use fossil fuels. Costs can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the model. They typically use gasoline and come with greater safety concerns.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that an average of 78 deaths per year happened nationally from 2015 to 2017 from carbon monoxide poisoning tied to generators. That includes portable units as well as backup and auxiliary home generators.

Portable models shouldn’t be run indoors or within 20 feet of a house because of carbon monoxide concerns, according to Hope.

Then there’s the environmental impact.

A 2016 presentation from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, citing information from EPA and elsewhere, said a 5-kilowatt generator could produce about the same amount of carbon monoxide as 450 idling late 1990s midsize cars.

"They contribute to the very same climate change that results in these severe weather events that necessitates their use," Hope said.

The good news environmentally is that home generators aren’t turned on too often.

Praise for backup generators used during the February storm surfaced last month in a Texas House committee discussion on a bill that would prevent local cities from enacting natural gas bans.

"In my own home, I was able to keep things going because we had a generator that kicked on and ran on natural gas," state Rep. Joe Deshotel (D) said. "If I were in an area that prohibited that, I wouldn’t even be able to have that particular feature on my home."

People searching online for fossil fuel alternatives will find arguments for other ideas to tap into backup electricity, from batteries to fuel cells to biodiesel, as well as solar. But the cost for gasoline-powered backup remains tempting for many.

A top portable generator could cost $33 to $51 a day to run around the clock at $3 per gallon of gasoline, according to Dave Trezza, Consumer Reports‘ testing technician for generators. The cost to keep a stationary unit running 24 hours a day on liquid propane could be higher, Trezza said in a statement.

Hope, who lives in Putnam County, N.Y., has a portable gasoline generator, complete with a stockpile of gasoline in his detached garage and an installed connection to his circuit breaker panel.

"It would be naïve to think … that the grid is going to get any more reliable or that weather is going to get milder," he said, adding, "Both of those things are just going to get worse and worse and worse because of inaction on both fronts."