The once-in-a-century winter storm in Texas provides a good opportunity to be reminded of the three types of extreme weather events that typically strike the United States.
Extreme Season of Weather
The first is an extreme season, such as a very warm summer or a very cold winter. A perfect example of this happened in New England in the winter of 2017-2018, when the region faced several prolonged cold-spells for which the energy infrastructure was unprepared.
The regional power grid in the northeast and New England relies in large part on natural gas. However, when December and then January and then February brought sustained low temperatures, the existing pipelines could not transport enough gas to both heat New England homes and businesses and produce sufficient electricity. As a result, local power plants switched from burning natural gas to oil and even coal, increasing the greenhouse gas emissions of power generation. In other words, a prolonged cold spell resulted in worse emissions than necessary.
Extreme Single Weather Event
The second type of extreme weather event is a singular period of uncharacteristically intense weather, such as a brief heatwave or, more recently, the freeze in Texas and other parts of the central United States. Across Texas in February, at least 4.5 million customers lost power due to uncharacteristically low temperatures. Because homes in that region often use electric heat pumps, electric stoves, and electric water heaters, power outages meant no heat, no indoor cooking, and no hot water—a dangerous mix in freezing temperatures. However, this does not need to be the case.
Extreme Weather Caused by a Storm, Tornado, or Hurricane
The third type of extreme weather is caused by a storm, whether a snowstorm, a rainstorm, a tornado, or a hurricane. Take hurricanes in places like the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana or the Gulf Coast of Texas. There is plenty of time to prepare before and during hurricane season, plus communities have warning before hurricanes come in, sometimes more than a week of warning. However, all of that warning is useless when the power goes out after the fact. For many, power outages mean no hot water, no cooking for most homes, and no lights. Yet, that need not be the case with the use of propane.
Preparing for Weather Exigencies
In normal times, we turn a switch and the light goes on, we turn the faucet and feel warm water, we turn on the stove and boil a pot of water, and we heat or cool our homes as we wish. That is part of the magic of 21st century American life. However, times are not always normal, and it is time that we, as communities, begin preparing for the inevitable weather exigencies. Propane use at the home should be considered for a first step, not a last measure.
Propane to the Rescue
Residential developers, home builders and community planners should consider designing propane into homes. States and municipalities should consider incentivizing propane as personal and community options so that the next time severe weather hits, more people will be protected from outages. Propane will allow homeowners to maintain the luxuries of modern life even during severe weather conditions, and recovery resources can be focused on other families in need.
For example, many rural and suburban homes in New England could use propane from tanks installed on their properties to heat their homes. Or in Texas, homes with dedicated propane tanks could have any of the following: heat, hot water, cooking and even electricity through a generator that runs on propane. This would free space in the natural gas pipelines to supply power plants, and it is much more environmentally friendly than using electricity produced by burning petroleum or coal.
Propane is affordable and is generally transported by truck, so it is separate from the traditional pipelines and power lines that are disrupted so often in severe weather. Propane is stored on-site, so it is available in weather emergencies, and widespread adoption would free space in the natural gas pipelines to supply power plants.
Propane by itself is non-toxic and is not a greenhouse gas. When burned, it releases less carbon dioxide and is better for the environment than diesel fuel and gasoline. In the past, when severe weather has limited the availability of natural gas, harmful emissions spiked as communities turned to coal and oil to provide electricity. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Equipping homeowners with the ability to use propane for some basic household needs when the power or natural gas is out would help reduce the environmental harm caused by oil and coal.
Bottom line: Propane is a reliable option for communities looking for personal energy security.
About the Author
Ellen R. Wald, Ph. D. is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and the president of Transversal Consulting. She is the author of “Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power,” a book on the history and strategy of Aramco and Saudi Arabia.