Montinique Monroe/Getty Images
As the blackouts in Texas dragged on, millions of residents quickly realized they had more to worry about than trying to light and heat their homes. The water coming out their faucets was no longer safe to drink.
Like falling dominos, infrastructure around Texas, dependent on electricity, began failing in the extreme cold. In Austin, the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant shut down due to an electrical failure. That, combined with low water pressure from broken pipes, meant residents had to boil their water.
Blackouts are becoming increasingly common as extreme weather causes electricity demand to skyrocket, while simultaneously damaging the aging electric grid. Climate change-driven disasters, like more intense storms and hurricanes, only increase that risk.
So, some communities are looking for new ways to ensure that vulnerable people and infrastructure can withstand power outages. They’re installing solar panels and large batteries to create tiny “microgrids” that continue working when the larger grid goes dark.
Some are being sited at crucial facilities, like water treatment plants, hospitals and emergency response centers. Smaller battery systems also aid people who rely on life-saving medical equipment at home. While electric utilities traditionally invest in keeping up the electric grid, disaster experts say they need to also explore newer solutions, adapted to extreme weather, for when the grid falters and can’t be repaired fast.
“These natural disasters and disruptive events are going to continue,” says Eliza Hotchkiss, senior resilience analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “We’re seeing them, especially in hurricanes, happening more frequently with greater intensity. So we just can’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore that this is a thing that’s happening, because it will just continue to disrupt our lives.”
Water needs power
The extent of the blackouts in Texas took many people off-guard, even energy experts living there, like Melissa Lott. She’s research director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy but has lived in Texas with family during the pandemic.
“We thought we were setting up for 40-minute rolling blackouts, which is what they were telling us online to expect,” Lott says. “And instead of 40 minutes, it was almost four days before we got our power back and we lost our water as well.”
Still, it wasn’t the first time Lott had experienced something like that.
“I remember being in Texas in 2011 and having a four-hour blackout in the middle of that cold storm,” Lott says. “People were going: ‘once in a century storm.’ Here we are ten years later with an even more extreme storm.”
In the wake of the damage, millions of Texans spent more than a week without drinkable water. Water infrastructure, like the treatment plants for drinking water and wastewater, needs electricity to operate — a lesson that became clear almost a decade ago when Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey.
“I’ll never forget driving that day and the whole state was just black,” says Andrew Powers, who works on solar and energy storage for PSE&G, an electric utility in New Jersey. “That storm was extremely eye-opening.”
Sandy caused the largest blackout in New Jersey history, including at many wastewater treatment plants. Without electricity, the plants can’t clean the incoming sewage before releasing it into the environment. Many facilities had backup generators for emergencies, but they didn’t hold up in the flooding and widespread damage.
“It took several weeks for the state to really come back,” Powers says. “Generators were destroyed, and they weren’t able to get diesel fuel to their generators.”
Billions of gallons of raw sewage were released into waterways in New York and New Jersey as a result of the power loss and flooding. In the wake of the storm, the state of New Jersey began looking at how to create a more resilient system.
PSE&G installed solar panels at a wastewater treatment plant in Caldwell, New Jersey, as well as a very large battery. The solar panels generate electricity for the local grid, but in the event of a storm, they help keep the plant running by supplying the plant during the day and helping to charge large batteries that can provide electricity when the sun goes down.
Between the battery and the backup generator, the wastewater plant can run for several weeks on its own, Powers says. The utility has installed similar projects at other key locations, like a hospital in Camden, New Jersey and at a high school, which can serve as a warming or cooling center for the larger community in extreme weather.
“Assume dramatic things are going to happen,” says Joe Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. “We are certainly experiencing climate change. The storms are not going to get any gentler, so we have to work and prepare as best we can for that.”
Batteries at home
The devastating human cost of blackouts also became apparent in California last year. The state was forced to implement rolling outages when extreme heat sent demand for electricity soaring. While the state had planned for heat waves, it hadn’t prepared for the extreme scenarios that are becoming increasingly likely to occur with climate change.
Outages have also become a regular event for millions of Californians during wildfire season. When high winds and temperatures increase the risk of fires, utilities preemptively turn off electricity in some areas, sometimes for days, to prevent their equipment from sparking a blaze.
That means the mere threat of wildfires affects the lives of many, including Richard Terrano of Magalia, Calif., who survived the Camp Fire in 2018.
“It basically took an entire community and wiped it out,” Terrano says. “I’ve lived here 50 years and everything I knew prior to the fire is gone.”
Terrano needs supplemental oxygen and a breathing device at home due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But his home often loses power now during fire season. At first, he tried using a portable generator, but found that running it continually could cost around $100 a day for fuel. Terrano is retired and is on a fixed income.
“It’ll take your entire monthly fuel budget and it’ll eat it up in a number of hours,” he says.
Then, Terrano heard about a program that lends portable batteries to residents with medical needs, run by the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers with the support from the utility PG&E. The small battery is kept at his home and can be wheeled around if needed to power his medical equipment.
“It’s probably about eighteen inches square,” he says. “It’s like a large block and it’ll run my equipment for several days before a recharge is necessary.”
This year, the program plans to lend almost 3,000 batteries to help those with disabilities and medical conditions.
“We need to be prepared,” says Christina Mills, executive director at the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. “While the stress will still exist, it will be limited the more prepared you are in advance. For individuals with disabilities and older adults who rely on powered medical and assistive technology equipment, it can be life altering.”
Paying for resiliency
Large-scale batteries are generally more expensive than traditional sources of power, sometimes two or three times the cost, but the price is coming down rapidly. The technology still isn’t widespread beyond pilot projects, though that’s changing in California where there’s a state mandate for energy storage.
Comparatively, the Texas blackouts cost the state billions of dollars. Grid experts say if utilities put a dollar value on avoiding blackouts and making communities more resilient, microgrid systems look much more affordable.
“It really doesn’t mean that you have to invest too many more resources to bring your system up to the standards that you need for a resilience situation,” Hotchkiss says. “It doesn’t need to be any more costly than the system you might already be considering.”
States often commit to a large infusion of funding after a major disaster. But in a hotter climate with more extreme weather, experts say each community will need to identify the most vulnerable people and critical infrastructure and find ways to support them when things go wrong. That can take years of support, beyond a few pilot projects.
“We don’t just need one shot of money in the system,” Lott says. “We need sustained investment to decrease the risk across the system as we move forward. That’s something I don’t see being talked about as much as I wish I’d heard it.”