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Efficient, Resilient Buildings Can Help Texas Weather the Next Crisis

When the power went out across large swaths of Texas in February, the deadly crisis exposed vulnerabilities from the grid level down to individual homes. Unwinterized power plants and fuel-supply systems failed under extreme conditions, constricting the state’s supply of electricity. At the same time, the demand for electricity soared as Texas homes—largely dependent on inefficient electric resistance heaters—struggled to keep their occupants warm.

As part of its response to the crisis, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has pledged to expand its scenario analysis to consider larger peaks in demand and bigger outages in generation. And many of the unique features of Texas’s electricity market have come under fresh scrutiny.

Overlooked in many analyses, however, is Texas’s enormous capacity for efficiency solutions that would limit the increases in electric demand during extreme weather events and help residents to survive and even be more comfortable during outages. They can also save money for both the system and individual homeowners the rest of the time.


Surging Demand for Heat

The heating (and cooling) demands of Texas homes drive huge swings in electricity demand. Compared to a mild November day (63 degrees Fahrenheit in Dallas), a cold snap (15°F in Dallas) increases peak load on the ERCOT grid by roughly 80 percent—a whopping 29 GW increase due to weather. Air-conditioning use drives similar peaks in the summer, but the Texas energy system is better prepared for high temperatures than for sub-freezing temperatures.

Much of the heating demand comes from inefficient electric resistance heaters, which are especially prevalent in Texas. More than 60 percent of Texas homes use electric heating, due in part to low electricity rates in the state, and the majority of those homes have electric resistance furnaces rather than efficient heat pumps. Overall, electric furnaces are about 2.5 times as prevalent in Texas and surrounding states as they are nationwide.

The spike in electricity demand from resistance heaters is amplified by the fact that many Texas homes were not built to retain heat effectively. The state had no building energy code until 2001, so buildings more than 20 years old were constructed with uneven efficiency levels. Many homes would benefit from better insulation and airtightness, and more than half of homes in Texas and surrounding states have single-pane windows.


Flattening the Peak

Cost-effective energy efficiency solutions provide a massive untapped resource that would make Texas more resilient to all manner of climate-driven risks, from winter storms to heatwaves, hurricanes, and wildfires.

Efficient buildings not only make for a less peaky grid but also provide far more “hours of safety” for their inhabitants in the event of power loss. A recent RMI study showed that homes built to modern efficiency standards provide far more protection than older, unweatherized homes.

In a simulated outage during a Minnesota cold snap, indoor temperatures in a typical 1950s home dropped to less than 40°F within eight hours. On the other hand, a home that complied with 2009 building energy codes maintained temperatures above 40°F for 45 hours. Extending these hours of safety is especially important to protect the elderly, young children, and people with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to extreme cold.

Texas has the potential to save more than 22 terawatt-hours of electricity use per year through cost-effective residential efficiency upgrades—more than any other state. The energy savings achievable by improving the efficiency of Texas homes would nearly offset the entire electricity usage of the state of Idaho.


Saving Watts and Dollars

Among the available home efficiency upgrades, electric heat pumps have by far the greatest potential for electricity savings—and reduced electric bills—in Texas homes. And while previous generations of heat pumps were not well equipped to deal with extreme cold, heat pump technology has seen remarkable improvement in recent years.

Replacing inefficient electric furnaces with modern heat pumps would save Texas 9.2 terawatt-hours of electricity usage per year and would shave $670 off the average household’s electric bill, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Even with the relatively low price of electricity, NREL estimates that it takes only about three years for a Texas household to recoup its investment in a heat pump. And because heat pumps can provide both heating and cooling, they can also replace aging, inefficient air conditioners.

After heat pumps, the cost-effective efficiency improvements most applicable to Texas homes are drill-and-fill wall insulation, smart thermostats, and LED lighting, according to NREL.


Local Actions

Although Texas does not have a stringent statewide energy code, local jurisdictions can follow the lead of Austin in adopting their own codes that ensure greater building efficiency. Among the key differentiators in Austin’s energy code are higher standards for wall insulation, a requirement for internet-connected thermostats, and a mandate for solar readiness in new construction. As a result, Austin ranks significantly higher than its Texas peers in terms of building efficiency policies.

Along with efficiency upgrades, local governments and utilities can increase resilience by incentivizing the deployment of technologies such as smart thermostats and solar PV systems with on-site storage. Customers with internet-connected thermostats can often opt in to utility programs that offer rebates in exchange for allowing the utility to temporarily adjust the thermostat during episodes of peak demand. Homes with generation capability and battery storage can more easily shift their electricity demand away from peak hours and can draw on a backup source of electricity to lessen the impacts of an outage.


Addressing Unequal Impacts

As Texas policymakers look to build resilence to future crises, they can take steps to ensure that all Texans have access to efficient, affordable housing that provides adequate shelter from the elements. And while efficiency goals or programs that focus on new construction are an important component, these programs and those that require significant upfront cost from residents will still leave many people in the cold.

Substandard housing and other systemic issues disproportionately exposed low-income communities, as well as Black and Latinx residents, to the impacts of the outages. Residents of predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods often live in older homes with little or no insulation. And Texans without cash reserves or private transportation were less able to stock up on essentials ahead of time to help them weather the storm.

Furthermore, some high-density downtown neighborhoods retained power because they adjoin hospitals or other critical facilities, but less affluent communities farther from the city center were less likely to be spared.


Engaging the Hardest-Hit Groups

As local leaders formulate their response to the outages and prepare to weather the next crisis, they should strive to solicit the input and participation of the groups that have been hit hardest. All too often, the most affected communities are underrepresented in the discussions, policy debates, and official responses that follow disasters.

Nationally, groups such as the Greenlining Institute have shown how participatory planning processes that consider the assets of communities and that center equity can yield better climate adaptation and resiliency outcomes, especially for low-income communities of color. One positive local example is the Resilient Houston plan, which the city produced in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. Resilient Houston aims to ensure that at-risk communities receive sufficient resources for disaster planning and mitigation, and that the city prioritizes those communities in future disaster recovery efforts.

Fortunately, there are many organizations advancing equitable solutions across Texas, including the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience; the Texas Energy Poverty Research Institute; Public Citizen; the Texas Organizing Project; Air Alliance Houston; and the One Breath Partnership. These groups are advocating for and/or with environmental justice communities in working toward an array of environmental, equity, and public health goals.


Everyday Benefits

Even outside of emergencies, improving the efficiency of Texas homes would lessen the considerable energy burden on low-income families. Texas households earning less than $25,000 a year already spend 12 percent of their income on home energy, as compared with just 4 percent for more affluent households.

Policies and incentives that make efficient, resilient buildings cost-effective for everyone can improve Texans’ year-round quality of life. What is more, these improvements save money, reduce strain on the grid, and build more resilient communities. Coupled with the right financing and participatory processes, building our systems with resilience and efficiency in mind can help correct past inequities and provide healthier, safer, more affordable homes for Texas and the nation.