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A Perfect Storm

By Christina Krost, Faith in Place’s Policy Coordinator

By now, you’ve likely heard about the major grid failures in Texas caused by an unprecedented winter storm. Over 2.5 million Texans are without power leaving 30 dead as of Friday. People as far north as the Dakotas and as far south as Louisiana have been impacted by this weather emergency. While no one storm can be attributed to climate change, the overall increase of storms can be.

So why did the power outages happen and what can people of faith do to help?

First, let’s break down the why. Texas has its own energy grid rather than the interconnected grids the east coast and midwest use. Texas can both produce and consume enough energy to supply their grid – except in times of extreme heat or cold. Another reason for this separate grid is regulation. Texas didn’t want their utilities to be regulated by the federal government, so they built their own.

This free-market system works well for utility companies, but not for consumers, and was not built for resilience for a changing climate.

You can learn more about why Texas is having a power shortage in this short video.

William W. Hogan, a professor of global energy policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, acknowledged that while many Texans have struggled this week without heat and electricity, the state’s energy market has functioned as it was designed. That design relies on basic economics: when electricity demand increases, so too does the price for power. The higher prices force consumers to reduce energy use to prevent cascading failures of power plants that could leave the entire state in the dark, while encouraging power plants to generate more electricity. “It’s not convenient,” Professor Hogan said. “It’s not nice. It’s necessary” (Source).

This is systemic failure by design and has unveiled great inequality in our energy system.

That is little comfort now for families trying to keep their children warm, elderly residents trapped in their homes, individuals who need electricity for medical equipment and medications, and those waiting for COVID-19 vaccines. Even food in Texas is now becoming scarce.

So what can we do to help and ensure that a similar disaster does not unfold in Illinois? For some, the crisis is already here. ComEd and Ameren customers on hourly pricing plans have seen their yearlong energy savings evaporate overnight as the energy market prices fluctuate wildly. This will level out over time, but those that watch their energy budget closely may be getting nervous.

Simple energy efficiency behaviors can help. The cleanest energy is the energy you don’t need to produce, so when we reduce our consumption, our fossil fuel-powered grid produces less energy, helping keep our shared land, air, and water cleaner and our neighbors healthier. Reducing our usage can also stabilize a shaky grid during a weather emergency.

But on a bigger scale, this crisis is foreshadowing what climate change can do to our existing power grids. As temperatures get warmer, similar issues will happen. The need for more air conditioning will overburden the existing capacity of many power grids causing power outages and heat exposure is just as dangerous as extreme cold.

As people of faith, there are actions we can take to protect our communities and advocate for those most vulnerable during crises like this.

As an example, I am a Christian who observes the season of Lent. This is traditionally a time of fasting and abstinence. This year, I am encouraging others observing this season to consider a fast from carbon by finding ways to increase energy efficiency as a spiritual discipline.

Interested in having your House of Worship co-host a free energy efficiency webinar? Reach out to Isioma, Faith in Place’s Climate Change and Energy Coordinator by email.

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