This editorial is part of a series published by The Dallas Morning News Opinion section to explore ideas and policies for strengthening electric reliability. Find the full series here: Keeping the Lights On.
America’s energy infrastructure has a reliability problem. And that has created even worse trouble: a trust problem. If Americans continue to lose trust in the electrical and vehicle fuel networks, they will scout for ways to unhook themselves from the grid.
Since 2015, the amount of electricity generated by small-scale photovoltaic solar panels has tripled in the U.S. to 41 million megawatt hours in 2020. That’s tiny, like a flashlight to stadium lights, compared with the 1.6 billion MWh generated by natural gas plants that year. But the growth has been steady and fast.
And the chief executive of Generac, a company that makes home backup generators, told CNBC in February that his company couldn’t make enough to meet demand during the freeze, and Generac will open a new manufacturing facility.
Public trust has always been the Achilles’ heel of Big Energy. Petroleum companies and utilities have been fortresses, with many communicating with the public strictly when absolutely necessary. (And sometimes not very respectfully.) The attitude has long been: This is all very complicated so you’ll just have to trust us.
Of course that approach never worked. And though public trust eroded with each oil spill and chemical explosion, Americans needed petroleum-based fuel. People couldn’t very well vote with their pocketbooks when they still had to fill their tanks and drive to work.
Trust in electric companies also eroded with every power outage and surprisingly high electricity bill, and with every confusing ad about new retailers and new contracts. At this point, it hardly matters if the next power outage is due to some complicated technical issue that nobody can explain or a simple tree limb falling on a wire. It hardly matters if the next surprise bill is because of a wholesale market glitch that inexplicably rains down riches on certain corporations and causes others to go bankrupt, or because somebody left the AC on 65 before walking out the door for vacation. People feel they have little control over their electricity, that they are at the mercy of Big Power or Big Grid or Big Who-knows-what.
So when the grid operator says trust us, we are doing everything possible to get the lights back on, all of Texas responds: yeah, right.
Folks are primed for products that allow them to take control of their energy, and if Big Grid isn’t careful, these products could end up being off-grid. Utility executives dream of customers using grid-connected smart meters to grant power companies access to their homes to help manage and reduce their electricity usage. These days, that dream gives a lot of people the hives.
What do the folks who run the Electric Reliability Council of Texas think Walmart has been up to all these years as an official Texas wholesale power market trader? The retailer isn’t changing its business model to build giant power plants or sell retail electricity. No, Walmart astutely began taking control of its own energy by buying power wholesale, installing solar panels and upgrading store efficiency to manage costs and to improve reliability.
Guess what, that’s what many Walmart customers want to do, too, on a smaller scale.
Now, people are talking about personal generators, batteries, electric vehicles charged with home solar arrays. Microgrids, even. That is, a grid that connects only a neighborhood or a corporate campus to its own generator, which can unhook from the ERCOT grid in an emergency and keep the lights on.
These ideas are not entirely realistic, at this point at least, and most people would be better off making their homes more efficient before investing in solar panels. (Maybe bump up the thermostat a couple of degrees and see how it goes for the light bill before calling a neighborhood meeting about a microgrid.) And if neighborhoods and commercial buildings start shifting off-grid, that could leave the grid unstable and force everyone else to pay higher costs to maintain it. Plus, the battery owner or microgrid enthusiast still has to rely on technicians to fix problems when something goes wrong.
Still, expect future-minded people to start demanding changes to any electricity regulations, city ordinances or HOA rules that prevent customer control of personal power generation.
And now, the realization that our infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber pirates, who can shut down a massive pipeline for a ransom? Even if major energy companies had a profit motive to protect critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, people are skeptical that they could.
If that’s a reason to want a Tesla and a home generator to keep it whirring, it’s also a reason for the Texas Legislature and ERCOT to embrace important reforms. Energy leaders should empower customers, ensure Texans are informed about grid problems, require power generators and their fuel suppliers to meet reliability standards, and allow those Texans who want to take energy into their own hands to do so. Unless and until more Texans have a greater level of trust in our grid, we can expect the demand for change to build with every flicker of the lights.