If your news regarding the energy future begins and mostly ends with Elon Musk’s Twitter, you might get the idea that we’re near a green nirvana in which most homes and businesses generate and store their own power in sleek batteries hanging on the walls of the garage. The batteries juice our smart appliances and charge our electric cars and trucks.
If electrical grids have any role in this future, they’ll function mainly to buy surplus power from our green homes and sell it to more backward consumers, thus greening their lives too.
Like a lot of science fiction, the Musk marketing pitch has a toe in reality and might someday come true. It’s fun to imagine. But the cold truth is something different, as Middle America is being reminded.
And I mean cold. Snow on the beach in Galveston, sub-zero wind-chill factors across Texas, sheets of ice in Oklahoma and Louisiana, days on end without a thermometer above zero across thousands of square miles in the upper Midwest.
The polar vortex put a dagger in us this year. Mother Nature delivered a pop quiz to the 14 states in the regional electrical alliance, and the power grid failed.
Like the bloom of youth, electricity is a bounty few ponder until it is gone. Let the grid run low on juice in a cold snap, though, and people pay attention. The thermometer read 5 below zero Tuesday morning in my neighborhood of greater Kansas City when our turn came to endure a rolling blackout. The temperature inside the house dropped 10 degrees in an hour.
We were lucky: Our power returned as the blackout rolled on. Across much of Texas, many residents haven’t been so fortunate. More than 4 million people were without power during much of Monday.
The good news: A warming trend is forecast as the jet stream resumes a more familiar course. Texans should be back in their shirtsleeves in a week, the snow and ice melted into memory. Late-February temperatures in the 30s and 40s will have Kansas Citians off the weather and back to the urgent matter of acquiring offensive linemen to protect Patrick Mahomes.
If past is prologue, elected officials and policymakers will quickly move on as well. Modernizing the electrical grid to make it more resilient, more efficient and more secure is the worst kind of challenge: complex, expensive and easy to ignore.
The complexity is largely a function of local ownership and local regulation of electrical utilities. They see overall demand for electricity leveling out, thanks to more efficient homes and businesses, which means a future without growth for their bottom lines. Because a grid is only as strong as its weakest member, major improvements would require every local utility to make major investments despite the no-growth outlook. Most would prefer to look away.
So here we are. Millions of chilly folks have received a stark reminder that our daily lives are governed by the flip of a few switches. When electricity flows, we’re part of the 21st century; shut it off and we feel ourselves reeling backward toward the Dark Ages. Yet local companies lack motivation and capital to build a stronger grid on their own.
This is a job for the federal government. Congress and the Biden administration should set standards for efficiency and reliability that local utility companies must meet, and provide grants and other financing to pay for upgrades. This may not have the cool factor of a sleek electric car or a battery-powered house, but it is the urgent here and now.
This is more than a matter of comfort in a cold snap. Intelligence agencies warn that the United States’ power grids are increasingly vulnerable to attacks from hackers sponsored by foreign adversaries. Hardening the nation’s electrical supply against cyber-warfare is clearly a federal responsibility and a matter of national security.
Maybe there’s a future far ahead in which every American life goes cordless. Meanwhile, few of us can thrive for even an hour unplugged. The truth just hit us like a cold slap in the face.