There has been no shortage of views exchanged in the aftermath of the Texas power crisis. From pouring scorn on the supposed culprits, to speculation around how net-zero plans might fare in the US Congress over the coming months, unpacking the crisis has become a task of urgent importance. The Lone Star state has become a symbol: the realities of a scientific argument, now thirty years in the making, have undeniably arrived. The era of extreme weather events has begun.
As a global community, our defence against climate volatility, and against any future challenge, known or unknown, must be to build resilience. This requires adaptation, and a kind of long-term thinking that will be highly daunting to nations the world over. But as several countries, the US included, gear up politically for net-zero, the application of low-carbon solutions, and the frame within which these are deployed, requires careful consideration.
A short-sighted approach to evolving energy systems, one that is guided by the size of an upfront cost, will fail to consider these pitfalls, and ultimately pose a threat to energy security.
The answer here is not, as some have claimed, to denounce renewables. The reality of the extreme weather that drove the strain on Texas’s grid have rendered that discussion well and truly redundant. Surviving the impacts of climate volatility now means two things: we need to prevent further warming of the planet by curbing carbon emissions, and we need to ensure our societies can withstand the long-term effects of the damage already done.
Electrification should be the driving force of both resilient energy systems, and stronger societies in the future – if policymakers deploy it with a long-term and holistic approach and support the collaboration of energy sources through the transition to a fully renewable energy system.
The first steps here are things like reinforcing grids and prioritising weatherisation. Around the world, wind farms must be developed in parallel to an enhanced transmission network, and an increased reliance on electrified heating in parallel to investment in energy efficiency.
We’re now at a point where the cost of fixing disasters far exceeds the cost of an upfront investment in the future.
Failure to do so would be an example of short-term thinking, and the margin of error for this approach will narrow drastically as climate volatility increases. We’re now at a point where the cost of fixing disasters far exceeds the cost of an upfront investment in the future. The time for risking energy security with short term thinking has passed.
The real challenge however will be going one step further. Reaching net-zero calls for a drastic rethink of the logic of our energy systems, and embracing the economic, health and social opportunities that come with this. A decentralised energy system abandons the traditional, linear approach to power generation and distribution that was sparked by the advent of fossil fuels.
Instead, it imagines a dynamic approach to power, where a web of zero carbon technologies can harmonise for a more responsive approach to energy security. It is a system that can be bolstered by technologies that already exist, while also leaving room to welcome in new ones when as they are ready. It would yield foresight, so that power might be rerouted in times of uncertainty. And to build and maintain it would be labour-intensive, a boost to job creation in a period of much needed economic recovery.
Most importantly, decentralised energy systems can function as the foundation of a net-zero future, where energy systems can continue to grow and meet demand sustainably.
As industry leaders do we want to keep paying to clean up a mess, or do we turn our attention to investing in resilience.
Yes, it’s a radical prospect. Working towards this vision, mobilising investment, designing policy interventions, transforming market dynamics, would call for a new nation building approach, a complete overhaul of the existing logic that underpins may existing energy systems.
But consider the alternative. As industry leaders, or as policymakers, do we want to keep paying to clean up a mess, or do we turn our attention to investing in resilience that will save us a lot more in the future?
So when it comes to energy systems, what does resilience look like in practice? More transmission connections, yes. More renewables, absolutely. A recent report found that wind and solar will need to increase their capacity by up to five times in the US in order to reach net-zero by 2050. But renewable capacity should be a first step in service of a broader vision.
Preventing the next energy-related crisis is about more than just building wind farms and revamping grids. It’s about evolving how we measure success, how we evaluate what’s important. Climate volatility will impact the full breadth of our societies, so our protections against it should also factor in impacts beyond the monetary. And past data cannot predict our futures anymore, our way of life has altered the planet’s trajectory into truly uncharted territory.
We need to embrace a fresh approach to evolving our societies, and this approach should shift the focus from costs, to value. This is the only the way to ensure our decisions nurture societies that are stronger than they are now, and that we can pass on a more resilient world to the next generation.
- Henrik Andersen is chief executive of wind OEM Vestas