Lessons from the 2021 Winter Storm: Texas must do more to protect consumers

Opinion by Bret Biggart, originally Posted on The Dallas Morning News.

Three years ago this week, a winter storm left millions of Texans shivering in freezing darkness. In its aftermath, state officials vowed to never let it happen again.

In some areas, such as weatherizing power plants, the state has moved aggressively since 2021 to protect Texans from a repeat of that catastrophe. But in others, Texas hasn’t done nearly enough.

State leaders proudly note that we haven’t experienced grid-driven blackouts since the 2021 winter storm. But officials also have issued more than a dozen conservation calls in the past six months, all but begging Texans to reduce electricity use as extreme summer heat and winter cold sent demand skyrocketing.

As Texas weather grows more extreme and the grid struggles to keep up, the state needs to focus on consumers who are counting on reliable electricity. That means supporting policies that weatherize homes and small businesses to reduce energy waste, as well as programs that allow more people to generate their own electricity and store it for when they really need it.

These consumer-focused strategies can be a powerful part of the state’s energy portfolio. Last year, the Legislature passed and Texas voters approved a $10 billion program to encourage construction of new gas plants — clearly, the grid needs this dispatchable power.

But consumers also need to be a bigger part of the picture. Consumer-focused policies do more than protect Texans from blackouts; they also reduce power bills and fortify the grid by offsetting demand.

Trying to increase reliability without involving consumers is like trying to keep someone healthy without exercise — there’s only so much that doctors and hospitals (or grid operators and power plants) can do.

As it is, growing numbers of Texans are taking matters into their own hands. Investments in rooftop solar and battery storage systems have grown substantially since 2021. Solar panels allow people to generate their own electricity, and battery units allow them to store it and use it when the grid goes out or when high demand causes prices to spike.

At Freedom Solar Power, the Texas-based company I lead, sales more than doubled in the year after the storm, and then nearly doubled again the following year. We also have consistently sold 4 to 6 times more battery units in the last three years than in 2020. Many of our customers say they took the plunge to protect themselves and their families from future grid failures.

But while this sector is growing, not enough Texans are benefiting from it. Texas is already the nation’s leader in utility-scale renewables, but our state lags in rooftop solar development.

As of last year, California had more than 24,000 megawatts of installed solar power beyond the large solar plants on its grid. In Texas, that total was less than 1,000 megawatts. The Texas Solar Energy Society estimates that fewer than 2.4% of all houses and buildings generally in Texas have installed solar panels.

The state doesn’t necessarily need to create more incentives for Texans to go solar. But it at least needs to encourage consumers to take advantage of federal and local utility incentives and incorporate residential solar into the state’s energy plans. And leaders must put an end to cynical political attacks on renewables that weaken the state’s energy leadership.

Unfortunately, as with other fast-growing industries, some less-than-trustworthy actors have made their way into this market. When picking a solar partner, make sure the company is accredited with the Better Business Bureau and check online reviews on sites like solarreviews.com. Also consider whether the company is full-service or only handles one piece of a solar project.

Texas also should do much more to help consumers weatherize their homes and install advanced devices that can keep buildings cool or warm while wasting much less energy.

Perhaps most importantly, the state needs to pay everyday Texans for helping to power the grid and for reducing energy use when the grid is stretched.

The state already rewards cryptominers, manufacturers and other huge electricity users for cutting use when demand is high. Homeowners and business owners deserve the same incentives. They also deserve fair net-metering programs that pay homeowners for the power they generate and send to the grid — just as utilities pay big generators for electricity.

These consumer-focused policies would give Texas the multifaceted reliability strategy that our future demands. They also would help Texans live more powerfully, cutting electricity bills and protecting people from blackouts.

Texas can help its power grid by helping its people. It’s past time to act.

Bret Biggart is CEO of Freedom Solar Power, a Texas-based solar company.