Loren Steffy, UH Energy Scholar
After the Great Texas Freeze-Out of 2021, several state politicians ham-handedly attempted to blame renewables for the power outages that left more than 200 people dead and cost as much as $130 billion in property damage and lost economic activity.
Now, renewables are getting their revenge.
No longer able to trust the power grid, and no longer confident that state leaders can keep the lights on, many Texans are taking matters into their own hands, adding on-site generation, solar panels and batteries.
John Berger, the founder and chief executive of Sunnova Energy International, a Houston-based residential solar provider, said his company’s installed customer base jumped 30 percent in the second quarter compared with a year earlier. That corresponds with a 165 percent increase in new orders during the same period. (The company doesn’t break out origination data by state.)
“What we saw increasingly is people have changed from ‘it’s nice to have’ to ‘it’s a need to have,’” Berger said.
Several trends were already driving the demand. Across the country, people are growing weary of extreme weather being characterized as “unprecedented.” As hurricanes, floods and wildfires routinely knock out power, residents are looking for peace of mind, regardless of costs. That mindset, combined with an increase in people working from home because of the pandemic, was already driving demand for on-site residential power across the country, said Berger, whose company has about 162,000 customers in 35 states and U.S. territories.
In Texas, the February freeze became an added catalyst.
“The freeze was a bit of a breaking point for folks that had had enough with [Hurricane] Harvey and other events,” Berger said.
With some prognostications of another frigid winter, many are looking to build in the reliability that the state has refused to provide.
Solar power is “our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said recently. Her department unveiled a study indicated that solar power has the potential to provide as much has 40 percent of the country’s power needs in 15 years. That would represent a 10-fold increase, but it also would require a significant increase in capacity and billions in federal funding to modernize the electricity grid.
The increase in residential solar goes hand-in-hand with the need for battery storage. That technology is improving and getting cheaper, Berger said, which has helped support solar installations.
Battery storage in Texas could top 1,400 megawatts by the end of this month, eight times more than the state had available at the end of September 2020, according to a study by S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The problems extend beyond Texas. Berger said that while Texas accounts for the biggest increase in new installations, his company has seen a 150 percent increase in demand nationwide in the first and second quarters.
Generac Power Systems, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of home generators, reported record sales of $1.7 billion, for the first half the year, a 69 percent surge from a year earlier. The demand is coming not just from Texans wary of the state’s shaky grid, but also frequent outages in California and growing concerns about grid reliability nationwide.
In some cases, natural disasters such as Hurricane Ida prodded people in other coastal areas into taking additional precautions — especially places like Houston that have been inundated in recent years.
The rise in solar, storage and generator sales comes against a backdrop of surging power demand in Texas, which is already the biggest electricity-consuming state. Texans used 429.3 million megawatts in 2019, accounting for 11 percent of all U.S. consumption. Factor in population growth — the state added 4 million people in the past decade — and the need for power seems likely to keep rising unabated.
Not surprisingly, Texas leaders haven’t updated the state’s energy efficiency programs in a decade, either, and it spends less on efficiency measures that most other states. Few consumers, for example, take advantage of energy audits that can identify wasteful appliances or leaky air conditioning systems, even though they often are paid for by electricity providers or tax credits.
And despite all the blather about how deregulation, adopted 20 years ago, would lead to innovation, it largely hasn’t. The simplest and easiest demand-reduction innovation, programs such as rebates or cash back programs or credits for smart thermostats and appliances, have largely been ignored by the state’s grid operator and utility commissioners.
Utilities in Texas have resisted so-called distributed generation out of concern that renewables would destabilize the grid.
That’s why solar installations for companies such as Sunnova aren’t even higher. Berger notes that getting residential installations approved in cities such as Houston can be difficult. Growth in new orders, for example, rose 200 percent nationwide between January and June, but installations can take six months or longer in some regions.
Even so, many Texans have decided the peace of mind is worth the wait. After all, somebody must invest in a reliable backup system, and our elected officials have made it clear it won’t be the state.
And while state officially may have tried to blame renewables for last February’s freeze, it’s increasingly clear that many Texans see residential solar as a possible protection against future blackouts.
Loren Steffy is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly, an executive producer for Rational Middle Media and a managing director for 30 Point Strategies, where he heads the 30 Point Press publishing imprint. He is the author of five nonfiction books: “Deconstructed: An Insider’s View of Illegal Immigration and the Building Trades” (with Stan Marek), “The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens” (with Chrysta Castañeda), “George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet, The Man Who Thought Like a Ship,” and “Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of of Profit.” His first novel, “The Big Empty,” was published in May 2021.
Steffy is the former business columnist for the Houston Chronicle and previously was the Dallas (and Houston) bureau chief and a senior writer for Bloomberg News. His award-winning writing has been published in newspapers and other publications worldwide. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas A&M University.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.
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