Freak cold spell in Texas should be wake-up call for world to act quickly in power upgrade
The recent power blackouts caused by severe winter storms across parts of the United States underline how key infrastructures in modern nations depend on the reliability of energy grids, which analysts say need to be more resilient in the face of climate change.
Record-breaking cold weather in the state of Texas left millions without electricity or heat. Local media outlet The Texas Tribune reported that the state’s power grid was “seconds and minutes away” from a “worst-case scenario”, where blackouts could have persisted for months.
Experts said such events can be partly mitigated against with novel alternatives to storing power that could be commercialized for mass use much faster.
Innovative technologies are available to achieve this, said Dave Worsley, a professor of engineering at Swansea University in Wales. He leads international research projects worth millions of pounds in areas of advanced materials and solar energy.
Worsley pioneered the concept of active buildings, which can generate, store and release their own heat and electricity by using integrated renewable energy technologies.
In an interview with China Daily, Worsley said the Texas event is a “wake-up call” and an unusual cold weather “perfect storm” that caused disruption to both renewable and conventional power grids simultaneously, just as demand increased.
“As we move toward decarbonizing with transport and heating, we will need more power,” said Worsley, adding that the potential scenario of extreme weather means “we need to build more resilience into our power grids”.
“We’re going to have more intermittency, potentially, in the sources of power that are providing our energy,” he said.
“What we’re working on with our concept of active buildings is not only to have them reduce their overall requirement for things like gas and grid power, but also transition them to use storage within the buildings for both heat and electricity, and this provides a stabilizing effect on the power grid all the time.
“For example, some of our buildings have big electrical heating systems, but because they have a battery in them, the grid only ever sees use of a few hundred watts, because they charge themselves from renewables or by ‘trickle’ charging from the grid,” he added.
“They can provide power back to support local power distribution when the price gets too high, or when carbon intensity emissions from the grid get too high we can share power from our ‘active’ buildings to our ‘dumb’ buildings.”
Last month, the United Nations warned in its adaptation report that not enough funding is being made available from governments to deal with the impact of climate breakdown.
Worsley said the Texas power blackouts should ring a bell of urgency worldwide. “It does set the mind of politicians and government individuals on to the ‘what ifs’,” he said.
“I think there is a lot of complacency in thought processes like ‘we’ve got plenty of power and it’s all fine’, or ‘we’ll all soon have an electric car, or a heat pump, and at some point it will all be hydrogen’, but it takes the lights to go off somewhere to get the politicians thinking ‘ok, this is serious’.
“It chimes with what the government has suggested here in the UK, and which is echoed across Europe, which is that when we get out of this pandemic, we need to go as fast as we can toward using the recovery period to push low carbon technology. It can create jobs and money, and it can stop the upward spiral of global carbon emissions and associated temperature increases.”
Last year’s report on resilience by the United Kingdom’s National Infrastructure Commission noted that although the country has one of the most reliable supplies in the world, it needed a new framework for infrastructure that stressed the importance of being able to cope with crises.
“The pandemic has been like a pause for the world, where people have reflected on all aspects of their lives, and thought ‘well, what does the future actually look like?’ Governments of all political persuasions seem to be moving toward using the recovery period as a mechanism for creating change in the way that we use and share energy,” Worsley said.
“What intrigues me is how we can bring the best of humanity together to solve these things to move more quickly. That’s one of the political challenges that needs sorting out.”
Worsley added that the clock is ticking, and the world needs to act fast to ensure the effects of global warming are minimized.
“The question is, how can we maximize the post-pandemic collaborations so that we don’t end up in a situation where global warming has major effects, because the number of people who could die from global warming could make COVID-19 look like a picnic,” he said.
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