Why Texas Froze Over
Texas is known for many things. Cowboy hats, brisket, and warm weather. However, balmy 40-degree winters are not a guarantee. February 2021 was a rude awakening for anyone who came to Texas to escape the icy weather up North. An unprecedented cold snap left Texas blanketed in a foot of snow, and many without power.
Ed Hirs, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Houston and energy market expert, discussed this cold snap and subsequent blackout with “The Current.” “I began studying energy economics in the 1970s,” Hirs explained. Since then, he has had an illustrious career teaching various subfields of economics, but his focus has always been energy. “I try to make a living in energy because I have lived in Houston since the 80s and have experienced the ups and downs of the market,” said Hirs.
As summer stretches on and the grass across the country turns from green to brown, thoughts of fire start to cross Americans’ minds. Wildfires are becoming increasingly catastrophic as it gets hotter and drier. After all, it only takes one spark to light a state on fire. Fire prevention and mitigation is becoming an increasing priority of communities, energy companies, local, and federal governments.
Wildfire prevention starts in the community. As more and more people move from urban areas into areas where wildfires are common, steps need to be taken to ensure fire safety. Jessica Gardetto, Chief of the Office of External Affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), told “The Current” about her favorite community-based resource fire prevention resource. “The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has really great Firewise resources on their website. Firewise is a fire safety education program run by the National Fire Protection Association. The program seeks to help communities protect their homes against wildfires. Firewise is an excellent step in mitigating fires in neighborhood settings.
Click here to read the full blog post and click here to listen to our podcast episode featuring National Interagency Fire Center’s Jessica Gardetto, Xcel Energy’s John Lee, and San Diego Gas and Electric’s Jonathan Woldemariam.
The Art of Engagement is a Journey
Check out the new blog post by the National League of Cities highlighting how Portland General Electric is positively engaging with local government to promote partnerships and equitable decision-making.
Across the nation, communities have faced a myriad of challenges, ranging from racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic to political and economic instability. In the Pacific Northwest, where agriculture, timber and fishing comprise significant segments of the economy, these challenges were compounded with a series of devastating wildfires in September 2020. The wildfires were soon followed by unprecedented ice storms in February 2021 – a storm that by some estimates brought down more than 50 million trees in the Willamette Valley and left approximately 150,000 people without power for days.
In one Oregon community, the ice storm tested a newly minted partnership forged between an electric provider, Portland General Electric Company and Oregon’s most ethnically diverse community, the City of Woodburn. The partnership built on the values of equity, inclusion and growing meaningful community relationships.
Click here to read the full blog post.
It is hard to exist without the internet. This past year has proven exactly how essential being able to connect online in order to communicate and work is. Quick, accessible, and secure connectivity is rapidly becoming a human necessity. However, many parts of the United States lack that secure connection. These, usually rural, areas of the United States are called the middle mile. The middle mile is a signal of a digital divide, between areas that have access to connectivity and those still existing without it. In the fight to close this digital divide, an unlikely hero has emerged: electric companies.
In Missouri, Ameren has taken up the task of uniting the telecommunication and utility industries. While Ameren makes no claims to be a telecommunication company, they understand the importance of stable communication networks. Bhavani Amirthalingam, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ameren joined “The Current” to explain this further. “Building a sustainable, reliable, secure, and smart grid is a key focus for all utilities, including Ameren,” Amirthalingam said. As clean, efficient energy becomes more widespread, there needs to be efficient communication to match. “Building an enhanced, secure communications infrastructure, what we often refer to as the third grid is a foundational capability,” Amirthalingam said. When telecommunication is lacking, electrical grids cannot reach their full potential or best serve their community.
The Biden Administration’s Legislative Approach to Clean Energy
The new administration has created a new buzz of media all proclaiming a new focus on climate change in the White House. Climate policies have been at the forefront of the Biden administration, with President Biden quickly signing executive orders directly addressing the climate crisis. The new administration’s focus on climate change isn’t new, however.
Energy industries have never lost focus on climate policies. Emily Fisher, General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Clean Energy at Edison Electric Institute sat down with “The Current” to discuss how energy companies have handled their policy priorities. “Our policy priorities haven’t changed but our opportunities to make progress on those policy priorities probably has,” Fisher remarked. Clean energy has always been on the mind of the energy sector. With the change in administration, regulators and legislators are becoming more aligned with that same vision.
The end of the commercial airship era and the beginning of news radio share the same soundbite – “Oh the humanity!” On a seemingly ordinary day in 1937, a hydrogen filled airship, The Hindenburg, ignited and crashed to the ground, killing dozens, and creating a long-lasting aversion to hydrogen in U.S. industry. Americans and American enterprise have come a long way since the 1930s. Our technology, our needs, and our goals have changed dramatically. The change that’s on everyone’s mind though is the recent election.
The President-elect provides a starkly different vision from that of his predecessor in many realms, but perhaps Mr. Biden’s climate and energy goals offer the most jolting contrast. On day one, President Biden will rejoin the Paris climate accord. In his first 100 days, President Biden will pursue the most aggressive federal climate policy in American history. His expected Energy Secretary nominee, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, reinforces a realigned climate position, advocating for Zero Emission Vehicles, a broad clean energy portfolio, and the phasing out of traditional fossil fuels.
Like many issues, energy policy continues to polarize, with both parties employing impassioned rhetoric to turn out the base. Democratic pundits call climate change an “existential” and “global threat,” while some of their Republican counterparts have doubled down and backed climate change deniers. The politico-talk that makes its way to the mainstream media creates a hyper-partisan atmosphere, hindering cooperation, compromise, and innovation.
When we take out some of the fiery politics, we see a very real retail politics component of energy policy and climate investments. What we mean is that advancing climate resiliency programs and economic and innovative energy policy creates solutions for real problems facing the average constituent or customer. In a recent podcast, EEI took the opportunity to chat with James Campbell, Director of Innovation and Sustainability Policy at Rocky Mountain Power about their relationship with the Utah government and their roadmap to expanded adoption of electric vehicles in Utah.
The Week California Went Dark
Nobody wants to live in the dark. Those who lived in California during the rolling blackouts of August 2020 had to experience just that. For two days, the power to communities across California was shut off for anywhere between 8 minutes to 3 hours. Phil Moeller, Executive Vice President of Business Operations Group and Regulatory Affairs at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), sat down with “The Current” to explain how these blackouts occurred and the future impacts that they will have.
One of the largest factors in the August blackouts was the historic heatwave that swept over the west coast. Due to the heat, customers in California were running their air conditioners lower and for longer periods of time. This, combined with technical issues from several natural gas plants and reduced hydroelectric output, created a situation where more energy was needed than was being produced. This is a problem for the electric system, as supply must match demand. “Ultimately the laws of physics govern the electric system, and those cannot be repealed,” Moeller stated. He continued, “there just wasn’t enough electricity on the west coast to serve all the needs of California.” In order to maintain as much system stability as possible they had to practice rolling blackouts.
It’s hard to imagine America without electricity. No matter which state or region you travel to, you can be almost guaranteed to have access to electricity. This access is because of something called electrification. Electrification took place in the 1930s and 40s as part of an effort to ensure that everyone had equal access to the thing that was becoming so vital to everyday life. Now, most people in the United States can take access to electricity for granted. However, in the 21st century, a new movement has emerged to ensure access to another vital resource: broadband.
For those who live in large cities, it may seem like broadband access is as prevalent as electricity. However, that broadband access is disparate. Many rural communities don’t have stable connections, without which they cannot keep up with an increasingly digital world. Houston Smith, Vice President of Government Affairs at Alabama Power refers to these rural communities the “middle mile.” “We like to think about these a lot like the nation’s transportation system, roads and highways. So middle mile is that ‘road’ that connects your driveway to the major interstates,” Smith explained. Parents that were sent home from their jobs didn’t have the means to work from home, and children who were sent home from school didn’t have the connection to attend classes. Local legislators have felt the push from these parents and children alike to expand broadband access to their rural communities. Legislators in Alabama found support in a local electric company, Alabama Power.
Is Nature Healing? COVID-19’s Impact on The Environment
During the first throes of the pandemic, media outlets searched for silver linings. One of the first ones they grasped onto was environmental changes. Blue skies, families of animals roving the streets, and manatees enjoying the waterways were all reported a few weeks after the first COVID-19 shutdowns. At least, despite all the bad news, nature was seemingly healing. However, as we have progressed away from initial stay at home orders and quarantines, questions have arisen. Are the lessened emissions a sign of success in terms of energy conservation? Or will emissions and energy usage go back to normal as soon as people do?
Evidence of positive environmental impacts go beyond anecdotal social media posts. Due to the amount of people staying at home, transportation emissions have gone down significantly. Lower emissions are a boon to local air quality. Residential energy demand did rise during the shutdown, but that was mitigated by a significant reduction in business and industrial demand for energy. As more and more workers were sent to work from home, large corporations’ energy demands shrunk. According to Edison Electric Institute’s General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Emily Fisher, “with a lot of businesses being shuttered, the demand for electricity to power businesses and manufacturing just wasn’t there.” Both factors mean that the environment was benefited by societies’ changes in behavior during the pandemic. However, were those behavioral changes enough to help the environment move forward?
LIHEAP: Keeping the Lights on in Low Income Communities
If you asked anybody on the street to describe the past year in a nutshell, one of the first words to spring to mind would be “stressful.” Between buying hand sanitizer, wiping down your groceries before they come into the house, and trying to navigate work and school from home, there have been many worries on the mind of American families. The fear of having your power shut off should not be one of them. While disconnection moratoriums have been in affect across the country, what happens when electric bills start rolling in again?
Katrina Metzler, the Executive Director at the National Energy Utility & Affordability Coalition, (NEUAC) has been working hard to help the families who will be most affected by the end of these moratoriums. The National Energy Utility and Affordability Coalition is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded to heighten awareness of the energy needs of energy consumers with limited incomes through public private partnerships. One of the programs that Metzler is most passionate about is called LIHEAP.
Electric Companies: Unseen Pillars of the Community
What does your electric company do for your community? The most obvious answer is simple- they keep the lights on. However, under the surface, electric companies are much more involved in their communities. Electric companies exist to do more than just keep the lights on, they feel a responsibility to help the communities that they are powering. During the pandemic, this support was more crucial than ever.
One electric company, DTE Energy, shared a similar passion project for connecting students to the internet. Nancy Moody, Vice President of Public Affairs at DTE, joined to share DTE’s community engagement goals.
What You Need to Know About Utility Scams
During the pandemic, the phone became a lifeline for many people stuck at home with limited interaction with the outside world. It became the only way a lot of families and friends could stay connected during stressful times. However, loved ones weren’t the only ones picking up the phone. With the boom in technology, utility scammers started booming as well.
Utility scams have been common in the United States and Canada for quite some time, but this time of upheaval has allowed scammers increasing opportunities to prey on individuals and businesses. Monica Martinez of Utilities United Against Scams explained the increased threat of scams during the pandemic on episode 2 of The Current. “Right now, people are worried, they’re at home, they’re working, their lives are in a little bit more upheaval so we’re seeing stress and these scams are more likely to come forward and we might not recognize them as easily.”