Texas’ Big Post-Covid Opportunity to Modernize Its Power Grid

by Eugene Han and Alex Rozenfeld

Modernizing Texas’ power grid will stimulate jobs and resilience. The time is right to look at ways of cultivating robust power sources that can withstand both pandemics and climate events.

Throughout  history, civilizations have seen pandemics as mechanisms for innovation to support the future well-being of their people. In the 19th century, multiple cholera epidemics broke out in New York, causing traffic jams of horses and carriages as people fled for the perceived safety of the suburbs. These outbreaks resulted in the building of underground wastewater systems and green spaces like New York City’s Central Park to make the city more livable and healthy. Covid-19 may have similar effects in Texas and larger urban metropolitan areas around the world.

In Texas, we are now seeing the first glimpse of Covid-19’s impact on the state’s legendary sprawl. Early evidence shows that Covid-19 lifestyle changes may reverse the two-decade-long national trend of people moving back to cities. This would undermine efforts to increase urban energy efficiency and the implementation of so-called “smart” cities, that seamlessly integrate energy management, transportation and social services. It also highlights  the need to modernize already strained suburban power grids across Texas.

Texas is among the nation’s hottest and mostly energy deregulated states. Texas’ unwieldy urban sprawl is seen in some of America’s fastest-growing cities: Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The Texas Triangle, as it is known, is home to more than 18 million residents. From 2010 to 2018, the state’s metropolitan areas were the only places  in the U.S. to have added more than 1 million people.

This rapid growth, combined with record heat waves and droughts, has often strained Texas’ electrical power reserve, which faces even more demand if Texans shift in a permanent way to working from home and if the record summer heat waves intensify. With these changes may also come a future decrease in power reliability, impacting businesses and employees working from home.

These important changes in energy demand emphasize the need to modernize the aging networks of power grids across Texas. The good news is that Covid-19 offers the opportunity for a fresh look at how the state organizes its energy infrastructure. The hope would be that the future would bring greater focus on distributed energy resources, which can provide robust and resilient power capable of coping with both the pandemic and Hurricane Harvey-type climate events.

Modernizing Texas’ power grid will also help fill a growing employment void created by the depressed state of Texas’ fossil fuel industry, which has seen thousands of jobs lost since the pandemic began. Texas is already home to more than 263,000 power grid workers. Pandemic or no, jobs in the energy sector are expected to grow. Between 2015 and the end of 2019, electric power generation added 177,000 jobs, energy infrastructure created 156,000, and energy efficiency an impressive 400,000, according to a report by Steven Pedigo Director at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs LBJ Urban Lab.

In the short term, the health needs caused by the pandemic are paramount. But we must also look to the future and be sure to facilitate an economic recovery. By embarking on a smarter and less carbon-reliant energy future, Texas has the chance to serve as a future model for supporting the health and safety of its citizens and its economy.

Original post and comment on Climate & Capital Media