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How Texas Could Address Its Energy Infrastructure Going Forward


All week, Texans have been suffering through the worst winter storm the state has seen in decades. Temperatures are now rising, and gas pipelines are thawing. As power gets restored, the conversation now is, how do you prevent this from happening again? Well, engineering professor Le Xie of Texas A&M University has been thinking about what can be done to safeguard the supply of electricity, like winterizing infrastructure or connecting Texas with the national power grid so it can lean on other states in times like this. But Le Xie is also thinking about how to better control demand.

LE XIE: So what we have experienced in the past few days is definitely another serious wake-up call for the state's energy and infrastructure. The kinds of assumptions that we put forth, you know, decades ago regarding the range of weather parameters will probably have to be revisited moving forward.

CHANG: Well, you have written about something called smart grid technology. What is smart grid technology, and how would it work here?

LE: Sure. We have been focusing on the supply side of the story, which is trying to make sure we have enough supply of electricity when such winter storms come. But on the other side of the equation is the demand side. So far, most Texans - what we have experienced are the so-called rotating blackouts. That is to say, your house will be blacked out for a certain period, and then your power will be turned back on in a controlled manner. But think about the future. Wouldn't it be nice if most of the houses could at least keep some of the essential electricity services on, such as keeping your lights on during the night, and perhaps defer some of the less essential services, such as doing dishwashers or laundries, to a few days later?

CHANG: Yeah.

LE: So that would have at least spared millions of households from the cold and dark nights. And that - the enabling technology is the so-called smart grid technology.

CHANG: I see. So it would basically prevent overwhelming the grid in the future...

LE: Exactly.

CHANG: ...Ideally. But what would it take for Texas to move to smart grid technology, as you describe it?

LE: So the good news is that a big chunk of the smart grid technologies are already in place. For example, a majority of the Texas residential customers have already been equipped with the so-called smart meters, which is a new type of meter that allows for faster and remote and automatic control of households' power needs. What we would need further would be a scaled-up deployment of grid edge technologies, for example, smarter thermostat in people's house, smarter circuit controllers, such as power electronic technologies. Those you would have seen in your Tesla car charging stations. And I would also want to emphasize, equally important, the institutional design of proper market incentives and business innovations so that for such demand reduction during critical times, such demand are properly credited and awarded, so customers feel like it is a carrot, not a stick.

CHANG: So you call this storm a wake-up call. Are you hopeful that some of these ideas might actually be implemented now because of everything that has happened this week in Texas?

LE: What we have experienced in Texas in the past week was way beyond the imagination of most of us. And just like Winston Churchill have said, never let a crisis go wasted. I think this is - I want to put it on a broader context. This is really part of the growing pain of the energy system transition not only for Texas, but for the entire country and perhaps for the entire world as we move towards a cleaner, a more sustainable and more resilient energy future.

CHANG: Professor Le Xie of Texas A&M University, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

LE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.