When Texas freezes over, it is time to sit up and pay attention. It is not so different from California boiling over last summer and setting record temperatures. But the reality is that such weather has become the “new normal” and next week, it could just as easily be New England that is made to suffer.
Indeed, what Texas teaches us is that it is unwise to rely on one energy source. And it is equally stupid to politicize such events — to blame fossil fuels or renewable energy for what used to be rare events but which are now “routine.” Texas froze. And in doing so, its infrastructure failed, which involves natural gas supplies and the pipelines to transport it. Wind turbines, which need to be winterized, also shuttered.
But many residents were able to stay warm and to keep their lights on by using propane tanks — a power source that is cleaner than diesel fuel but which does not depend on the network to get to homes. It is dense, readily accessible and easy to transport. To be clear, it’s not a “just-in-time” fuel source that kicks on when the electricity goes out. It is stored in everything from 20-pound canisters to large tanks that will run appliances or home-based generators for sustained periods. And when customers run out, it is often delivered to them by truck.
“Thanks to these kinds of weather events, we will experience hurricanes, derecho winds, flooding, tornados and extreme cold more often,” Tucker Perkins, head of the Propane Education & Research Council, told this writer. “This week has shown us that the energy complex is very complex. The demand swings so much that one fuel is never the solution. Moreover, clean energy like propane accelerates the movement toward decarbonization.”
As for Texas, about 52% of its electricity comes from natural gas while 23% comes from renewables, the U.S. Energy Department says. Coal supplies 17% and nuclear makes up 8%. Texas is also uncommon in that its grid system is largely insulated — unable to get new supplies from other areas of the country. The freezing temperatures have led to electricity outages for 4 million people.
The polar vortex in 2013 and 2014 seems like ancient history. Back then, the propane industry was not prepared to step up when the lights went out. People traveled long distances and waited in long lines while paying exorbitant prices for the fuel. But today, that has changed. And while propane deliveries were made hard because of unplowed roads, many customers stockpiled the fuel, which cost $2.50 a gallon.
Propane generators, meanwhile, are backing up 90% of all cell phone towers. And in homes, they have propane tanks that are feeding permanently mounted generators. The five-year goal is to run larger distributed generators using propane. “We have peak energy usage,” says Perkins. “Then we bring in the dirtier forms of energy to meet this need: oil and coal. We have to keep the focus on reducing our carbon footprint. The more propane we use, the better we are for accelerating decarbonization.”
Those extreme weather events have cracked the foundation of economic life — the reliability of the power grid. But with nearly six million miles of power lines, a lot can go wrong — especially because most homes are ill-prepared for sustained outages and keep nothing more than flashlights.
Take California’s heatwave and wildfires last summer: the state has prepped for wildfires using “planned blackouts,” which is different from the “rolling blackouts” that Texas is using to fight back. Critics of California’s progressive energy and environmental laws will say the troubles are the result of its eschewing fossil fuels and its reliance on renewable energy.
But California’s goal is to battle climate change using clean, inexpensive fuels. Instead of using dirty diesel fuel, policymakers there are looking to “distributed energy resources.” The is, more customers are using rooftop solar panels plus batteries that are connected to localized microgrids. It’s a way to alleviate stress on the main grid while using clean energy and ensuring reliability. It’s a practical solution, given that the price of wind and solar power is dropping precipitously, making them a low-cost alternative to other fuels.
Natural gas will play a key role — to instantly fire up when the weather does not permit. But that solution leads to greater carbon releases. And that’s why California is focused on distributed energy resources, especially at the community level.
But Perkins with the propane association emphasizes that propane is clean, abundant and practical — and can power everything from fireplaces to stoves and ovens to onsite generators in homes. It was even used to unfreeze water mains in Texas. At the same time, the propane can be stored in tanks for long periods and it is easily replenished. And, it requires no grid-powered pumps to operate. Some major propane providers today are Amerigas Partners LP APU 0.0%, Daigal Oil Company, Ferrel Gas Parnerts, LP, Suburban Propane Partners, Star Group LP., and UGI Corporation.
“It is appropriate to use natural gas when it is available to you,” says Perkins. “But if you don’t have access to it — and millions do not — then it is appropriate to use propane. Everyone has access to propane because it is in all 50 states. Propane performs the same jobs as natural gas does but it is not dependent on the natural gas pipelines. Propane stores as easily as a liquid. It is easily moved around in trucks or rail cars. It is more versatile.”
The tale of Texas is not uncommon. Blackouts and natural gas shortages are the norms, given that extreme weather events are more ordinary. While decarbonization is the ultimate goal, maintaining the reliability of the grid is the immediate target. And propane’s advocates want a place at the table, saying that their fuel achieves both aims — just as it has proved in Texas.