NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Point of View: What we need to learn from power outages in Oklahoma


What can we learn from the problems facing both Oklahoma and Texas? The hard truth is we must recognize that our energy system is more fragile than it should be. With climate change bringing more extreme weather, that’s only likely to get worse.

With that in mind, there are three key vulnerabilities that must be fixed in our current system.

Centralized power plants leave us vulnerable. The Southwest Power Pool (SPP) system, the 14-state power grid that Oklahoma participates in, gets most of its power from roughly 800 power plants that burn gas and coal to produce electricity. Wind generation has grown in the region, making up nearly 25% of the power, but local distributed generation is not yet the lion’s share of the grid. Because Oklahoma, like most of the United States, still operates on a centralized grid model, when demand for electricity spikes, problems with just a few power plants or transmission lines can quickly affect millions.

Second, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. The infrastructure we built 30 or 50 years ago just isn’t equipped to handle historic winter storms like the one we experienced in Oklahoma.

Third, our energy system’s dependence on fossil fuels is adding more climate change-causing pollution to our air, which will cause even more challenging weather in our future, which leaves our electric system even more vulnerable.

To solve these problems we must spur Oklahoma’s elected officials, regulators and utility companies to build a better and more resilient system.

What might that look like? It should start with more power produced locally. In wildfire-ravaged California and hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, utility planners are creating a network of local microgrids, heavily powered by solar and which include local energy storage, which can function independently and as a network.

Rooftop solar panels can be a game changer in extreme weather because by producing energy very close to where we use it there is less of a possibility of transmission lines going long distances, going down. Meanwhile, more batteries in our garages, basements or, even in our electric vehicles can allow us to store energy for later. Oklahoma has already made an effort to embrace clean, renewable energy. In 2019, the state generated 28,963 gigawatts per hour from solar and wind combined — roughly enough to power 200,000 homes in a year.

Using energy more wisely is also essential. Centralized fossil fuel power plants like those that currently power two-thirds of the SPP region, lose roughly 67 percent of the energy they produce through heat and even more gets wasted in transmission. We need to stop tolerating that kind of waste if we want more resilience.

While there is efficiency to be gained at the time of power production, there are also efficiencies that can be won at the consumer end. Energy efficiency improvements can reduce stress on the grid at times of high demand, and better-insulated homes, schools and offices are more comfortable in any weather.

Oklahoma has already taken some initiative to cut down on energy waste across the state by offering incentives for consumer investments in energy efficiency. The government also requires energy-efficient public buildings, benchmarks energy use, and encourages energy savings performance contracting in an effort to lead by example.

Utilities can also help reduce energy waste by implementing behavior-changing programs like putting smiley faces on the bills of the most efficient customers, setting up rebate programs for efficient appliances like electric heat-pumps, and giving customers access to free energy audits, weatherization services and low-cost financing.

One key place where Oklahoma has a leg up on Texas is the state’s ability to share electricity. By being part of the SPP region, if there’s a problem in one of the 14 states, the other 13 can help out. Emphasizing that ability to help out neighbors is essential.

Even the most self-sufficient areas need help sometimes and under setups like the SPP, those who have surplus power can come to the aid of areas where there is high demand. Texas, by insisting on operating its own grid, made it harder for neighboring states to help out when they were in trouble.

Let’s be clear though. Extreme weather fueled by climate change will keep getting worse. To break the cycle, Oklahoma and other states must keep moving away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy can help reduce the disruptive impact of climate change, and studies have shown that it is possible to build an energy system that runs on clean energy and keeps the lights on. And, unlike fuels like gas and coal that are inherently finite, renewable energy sources will always be there.

Oklahoma is well positioned to tap into local clean energy and storage and deliver a cleaner, safer, more resilient energy system through its shared grid. Now is the time for smart planning and follow through to reach that potential.

Graham Marema is a digital campaigner with Environment America.