Anyone in South Carolina watching last week as the polar vortex triggered the massive power grid failure in Texas, with millions struggling for heat and water, has to ask how we would fare here.
Gov. Henry McMaster, the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff and utilities are rightly checking whether our power plants and the gas lines that supply them are winterized. Most of the problem in Texas stemmed from power plants and gas supply lines that were not prepared for winter weather.
But with a changing climate, freak weather — like the Texas winter storm, the heat waves and wildfires in California last year, and the flooding along the Waccamaw River in Horry County this week — will keep happening.
At the most basic level, our infrastructure was designed to operate in “normal” weather, but the weather is no longer normal. We are outside the bounds of what engineers planned for decades ago when building our infrastructure.
What should we do? Most reports on the situation in Texas have focused on the power supply side of the equation while ignoring a higher-than-ever-before spike in demand for electricity.
South Carolina shares this same vulnerability with Texas: In both states, home electricity consumption — the single largest factor driving energy spikes that cause stress on electric and gas infrastructure — is about 25% above the national average. In a recent state-by-state study of energy efficiency policy, Texas scored 1 point out of 20 for the commitment of its utility companies to help customers save energy. South Carolina received 2 points out of 20. We are leaving savings on the table.
As Texans faced rolling blackouts and power outages in frigid conditions, officials encouraged them to cover gaps under their doors and along windowsills, close window shades and avoid using large appliances in an effort to conserve energy. These types of actions are too little, too late. What's really needed are energy efficiency efforts on the front end that will make homes more livable and reduce power bills in both the winter and summer, every year.
In the same way that state officials will now methodically check on the power plants and natural gas supplies to make sure they are winter-proof, we need a massive effort to professionally weatherize homes in South Carolina so that they never cause an energy spike in the first place. The best crisis management is the one that avoids the crisis entirely, and energy-efficient homes will stay warm in the winter for many hours longer if unpredictable weather overwhelms even the new disaster planning efforts.
Encouraging South Carolina utilities to expand on their programs that enable customers to save energy also means lower power bills, and less pollution coming out of coal and gas power plants and into our air and water.
We applaud the governor’s leadership in asking the Office of Regulatory Staff to review South Carolina’s preparedness for this sort of disaster, and we urge the office to consider the big picture — the demand side and the supply side of electricity — when evaluating our preparedness for increasingly variable weather.
Giving S.C. electricity customers more options to reduce the amount of electricity they need from the grid should be part of the solution to building a more resilient South Carolina, and the changing climate means we need to evaluate all of our energy infrastructure plans for resilience in the face of extreme weather events.
Eddy Moore is senior energy and climate program director for the Coastal Conservation League.