This past week, several states in the middle of the country faced rolling blackouts due to extreme weather conditions. The intense cold from the polar vortex has increased the demand for energy to keep people and their families warm. These cold temperatures brought on by the polar vortex and our inability to deal with climate events emphasize the urgency for us to invest in our infrastructure and transition to renewable energy. These climate events are directly related to man-made climate change, and the devastating impacts are compounded by America’s outdated infrastructure and reliance on fossil fuels and natural gas.
If the globe is warming, why is it snowing in Texas?
There’s a reason scientists abandoned the term “global warming” in favor of “climate change”. While the average temperature of the globe has been increasing steadily, the impacts from climate change aren’t exclusively warmer weather.
Typically, the polar jet stream restricts arctic air to the north. This is stabilized by a large difference in temperature between low and high latitudes. As a result of man-made climate change the polar regions are warming more quickly than the rest of the globe, a phenomenon known as polar amplification. Ultimately this creates a smaller difference in temperature between high and low latitudes causing the polar jet stream to meander and arctic air to blast its way across the continent.
This arctic air is causing unprecedented and prolonged low temperatures to occur across the central and southern regions of the country. While this seems like a once-in-a-lifetime weather event, it is likely to occur again in the not-so-distant future. Even worse, dangerously cold temperatures aren’t the only weather and climate events that are becoming more frequent.
The New Normal
While difficult to use one word to describe 2020, “unprecedented” might be as close as we can get. A year devastated by a global pandemic also set a new annual record of 22 individual billion-dollar weather and climate events in the U.S. More frequent and intense wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and tornadoes have devastated the country, causing emotional and physical damage with a massive price tag.
Although the impacts of climate change are already here, scientists warn we only have until 2030 to get things under control to avoid even more catastrophic climate events around the globe. Until we dramatically reduce our emission of greenhouse gases, we can expect these events to occur more frequently and with greater intensity.
In any event, it’s imperative we begin to prepare for the worst of cases. If this past week was a test of our preparedness we most certainly failed. In fact, in 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our energy grid a D+ rating. Our inability to combat climate change, as well as prepare for its impacts, is why millions of people in the United States faced rolling blackouts when they needed to keep warm.
Mostly built throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the United States’ infrastructure is already stressed and outdated. 644,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines across the country operate at near full capacity, many beyond their original intent. Our country’s reliance on this electrical grid cannot be understated. Prolonged collapse of the electrical grid could result in the death of up to 90% of the American population. The rolling blackouts that occurred last week displayed our country’s lack of preparedness for dealing with climate events that threaten our energy security.
First, we saw the failure of energy production due to our reliance on fossil fuels. In Texas, 35% to 42% of thermal plants were offline. These plants relied primarily on natural gas, coal, and nuclear fuel to operate. The infrastructure throughout Texas was not winterized, causing liquids to freeze and block pipelines. While wind doesn’t produce the majority of energy in Texas, it was producing more than forecast. And while icing did occur on about half of wind turbines in Texas, winterizing turbines in colder climates has enabled them to operate in temperatures as low as -30C (-22F). This only further highlights the need to better prepare our infrastructure for extreme weather conditions in response to climate change.
Second, we saw the failure of emergency response by discounting historically marginalized communities. Minority neighborhoods were some of the first to face the rolling blackouts and the impacts were particularly devastating. This is compounded by low-income community members’ inability to seek refuge by leaving the state or renting temporary shelter. It is also more difficult for these communities to rebound after events like this than it is for wealthier communities.
This is the pattern we continue to see throughout history in extreme weather events. According to Robert Bullard, professor at Texas Southern University, hurricanes, severe cold, heat waves, and global pandemics like Covid-19, often impact low-income communities first and they suffer the longest. In Kansas City, Missouri, some residents faced over 5 hours without electricity due to infrastructure failures. Prolonged blackouts were not uncommon in cities across the region.
The Change We Need
Last week’s events highlighted the fragility of our electrical infrastructure and emergency response. Our reliance on fossil fuels has both caused these extreme weather events and failed us during them. A just transition to renewable energy has never been more imperative to the survival of the American people. It is time that we invest in new infrastructure built around clean renewable energy.
We saw wind energy exceeding production expectations during these extreme temperatures while natural gas literally froze in its pipes. The unpreparedness of Texas’ infrastructure went beyond natural gas with uninsulated water pipes bursting in residents’ homes. With extreme weather events becoming the new normal, we need to be prepared for their inevitable return.
This means investing in new infrastructure throughout the country. In doing so we must take the impacts of climate change into account during planning. We also need to improve our emergency responses to these events so we do not leave poor and marginalized communities behind.
We can expect these events to continue to worsen in the coming decades. Climate change is not some singular event that will happen in the future. It is here, today. We are going to see these events continue to increase in intensity and frequency. It is our choice to be prepared and mitigate the worst of the issues, or to continue our reliance on fossil fuels and live with the devastating impacts.
A Call To Action
Missourians and Kansans are in a unique position right now. The electric utility company Evergy is meeting to develop its Sustainable Transition Plan (STP) and Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Both are likely to play a central role in when, how, and how much the utility will transition to renewable energy in the coming years. Although the plans will be finalized in the next few months, Evergy has not offered any opportunity for its customers to provide public comment.
CleanAirNow is collecting public comments from any concerned citizen. We believe that the people deserve the right to participate in the development of plans that will impact their everyday lives and the lives of future generations. We will deliver these comments to Evergy next week in hopes they will open the development of their plans to public comment. If you would like to create your own testimony, follow this link for instructions and the submission link.