Last week, Iowans woke up to record cold temperatures and the alarming news of crippled energy systems across the country. Especially in Texas, these interruptions to heat and electricity supply have cost lives, and freezing temperatures have compounded issues, leaving many without safe drinking water.
Unfortunately, some of the swiftest and loudest response was politicized, blaming the crisis on frozen wind turbines and questioning the reliability of renewable energy. In reality, solar and wind make up a relatively small part of the energy supply in Texas, and wind turbines can function in cold temperatures if they are weatherized as ours are here in Iowa. The blackouts in Texas had more to do with frozen equipment at gas and nuclear plants, competition for gas supply, and the huge demand for energy.
In Iowa, the problem in getting electricity to a home usually has little to do with the power plant. It is the power lines. Many Iowans lost electric power for days because of the August derecho. Limitations of the electric grid and aging energy infrastructure cause some homes to lose power with every ice storm.
Investing in a more resilient grid saves money and saves lives. But we should not focus all our attention debating energy supply when so much of this crisis is about energy demand. It is always cheapest to start with energy efficiency, cutting down how much power a household or business uses. It is also a safety issue when the temperature rises or drops and a home lacks insulation or old windows. Risks to life and health of people in this situation will arise faster than it will for those in efficient homes. That is not fair. Investing in efficient building is investing in disaster preparedness, protecting all Iowa families.
Iowa had one of the nation’s best energy efficiency laws in the nation until 2018. During that legislative session the big energy utilities lobbied to destroy it. The result was the elimination of free in-home energy audits and cost-sharing for insulation. Especially discouraging was the cut of 40-60% from the weatherization program for low-income families.
Human-caused climate change is real — 97% of scientists agree. We are seeing its effects. The earth is warming, disrupting longstanding weather patterns causing extremes in both summer and winter. Bitter cold in Texas and severe storms in Iowa are a call for action.
As leaders in Washington, D.C., debate infrastructure investments, we in Iowa should set our sights on upgrades to our energy grid so we can keep expanding solar and wind, ramp up deployment of energy storage, and ensure our energy infrastructure can handle extreme weather. Our leaders at the state Capitol should renew a focus on efficient energy use and safe homes, protecting vital heat, electricity, and water supply for all Iowans. These investments save money and save lives.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not only possible, it is necessary to avoid ever more extreme weather events. Investing in managing energy demand and keeping people safe should be our first step.