With heat waves in May, June and July, Texans have repeatedly broken electricity demand records across the power grid, and every day seems to bring higher temperatures and tighter electricity margins.
Texans’ confidence in the state’s grid was shattered in February 2021 by the widespread blackouts during the winter storm. The blackouts killed hundreds of people, left a large portion of the state’s population without power or water for several frigid days, and caused extensive property damage. Since then, Texas leaders focused on keeping power plants running, winterizing facilities and changing market rules to spur investment — pushing Texans’ power bills higher.
But grid reliability depends on managing electricity demand as well as supply. Texas’ population grew by 17% over the past decade, and temperatures have increased steadily since 2000. Peak electricity use has grown by 16% since 2010.
We cannot build new power plants and transmission lines fast enough to serve all that demand. In order to assure an affordable, reliable grid, we need to complement the current “build more” effort with strategies that strengthen the grid and reduce consumer bills by helping Texans manage the amount of electricity they need.
This means insulating homes, using better heating and cooling systems and appliances, and shifting some energy uses away from peak hours. Such investments would improve the odds that Texas can keep power flowing at affordable prices. They’ll also protect citizens and communities during blackouts, because well-insulated houses are warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
But Texas has under-invested in energy efficiency for decades, wasting extraordinary amounts of electricity and money.
A recent federal study suggests Texans could reduce energy use by about 19% without sacrificing either comfort or productivity. More than 6 million poorly insulated Texas homes leak heat in the winter and air-conditioned air in the summer. And Texas building codes aren’t designed to protect us from the much hotter summers ahead.
Texas has some of the weakest energy efficiency programs in the country. Only about 0.5% of utility revenues help customers get more efficient air conditioners, heaters and lights — ranking Texas 37th among all states. These programs could save money and energy for every ERCOT customer.
Energy efficiency also makes Texans’ homes more comfortable, healthy and safe. As electricity prices rise due to high natural gas and coal prices, families save money by using less electricity. Lower electricity use during peak hours means fewer expensive power plants are needed to meet the challenges of heat waves, cold snaps and Gulf storms. Energy efficiency and demand response also cost less than power plants and new transmission, so they make the entire power system work better at lower cost. And lower energy use slows carbon emissions and the rate of climate change.
In 2021, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy published a report showing how just seven energy efficiency and demand response programs, over a five-year period, could offset nearly 10% of summer peak load and about 15% of winter peak load. The group proposed upgrading home electric furnaces with efficient heat pumps, improving attic insulation and duct sealing, switching to smart thermostats, and installing more heat pump water heaters. We also proposed programs that pay customers to let their utilities tweak the use of their water heaters and electric vehicle chargers — with their full awareness and permission — when the power system is most stressed.
Over a five-year period, these programs could create meaningful electric bill savings for 9 million Texas households, strengthen the state’s grid, and cost 40% less than building new power plants.
It’s a long past time for Texas to invest as much effort and money in efficiency and customer savings as we invest in generation and transmission.
Energy efficiency in homes and businesses always works, even when power plants fail. The customer savings and additional reliability will help all Texans’ wallets and peace of mind.
Alison Silverstein is an Austin-based electricity consultant on the board of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Steven Nadel is the executive director of ACEEE, a nonprofit research organization that has worked on energy efficiency issues for more than 40 years. They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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