4 days after the end of Winter Storm Uri that left over 75 people dead and millions without power, a friend of ours Varun Rai, Director of the UT Energy Institute, posted an informal survey to his professional Linkedin network asking “Who do YOU think was primarily responsible for last week’s Texas Blackout?”
The results of the poll (Figure 1) were quite surprising and differed from the conversations we were having with our neighbors and friends. Their responses were at first, “Who’s ERCOT?” followed by “I hate ERCOT!”
Given how much finger pointing was happening in the news, we wanted to understand what the general public thought and how they wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. We conducted our own survey.
Our survey consisted of three main questions.
If you’d like to learn about how we conducted the survey, contact us.
Figure 2 shows the results of the survey. We received 365 responses from the general public. 71% of the respondents live in Texas. Of those, 76% lost power during the storm, 42% lost both power and water, and 7% lost only water.
The blame for the blackouts was spread primarily between ERCOT, State lawmakers, and State regulatory agencies with the plurality (37%) of the blame directed toward ERCOT. This result differs from Varun's informal poll of his professional network which found that respondents placed responsibility primarily on State lawmakers at 59%. The general public’s opinion is likely shaped more by the news media. ERCOT was definitely in the news often with much of the attention directed towards ERCOT by Texas Lawmakers.
The preferred solutions to prevent another blackout centered around more mandates and more regulation. This in stark contrast to the independent, self-reliance reputation of Texans. Adding power generation and backup power at the home (for example solar + storage) was surprisingly 4th. And adding more market based approaches was least important, likely it was emphasized in the media that Texas’s electricity market was one reason for the blackout.
Astonishingly, the results for who was primarily responsible and prioritized solutions were consistent across the different audience segments. There was little difference in the opinions of Texans and non-Texans or by those severely impacted by the storm or not.
The results leave me with 2 key questions:
This result contrasted with the many conversations myself and my team had with friends and neighbors about solar or batteries. It also contrasts with the 200% increase in interest for solar + storage reported by EnergySage or the 1000% increase in leads reported by Texas solar installers. So why was solar + storage ranked so low, especially in the independent minded (nation of) Texas?
Our hypothesis is that the general public still isn’t aware that solar + storage is a viable option, either at the personal level to ensure backup power or at the scale of the grid to help maintain grid-level resiliency ERCOT received lots media attention as did weatherization and Texas’s isolated grid. The folks that know about solar (from a friend or neighbor) inquired about it, but those that didn’t fell back to the solutions most discussed by the news media. Even with the recent growth in solar, awareness in solar+storage might not be widespread enough.
Fundamentally, people think of energy as a service. Moreover, we expect it to be 100% reliable, a concept some call perfect power. We pay for it, and we expect to receive it. Regulation is a way to ensure more reliable service.
The implication for solar is that consumers carry this mindset over to their solar system. Even though they may own their solar system, solar customers place the responsibility for the reliable operation of the solar system on the solar installer.
What’s surprising is that this frame of mind is different from owning a car or an HVAC system. When those items break or have issues, consumers may get mad but they also know that they’re on the hook to get it repaired. Contrast that to when a solar system isn’t working. Not only does the customer fault the solar installer and expect a fix, they also fault the solar installer for not actively monitoring the system’s operation 24/7.
For consumers, storage is not about the economics of load-shifting. It’s about peace of mind and reliability. Solar + storage is booming in California because of the brownouts. In Vermont, it's about reliability through their own winter storms. For installers in Texas, now is the time to leverage the emotions and new relationship with energy that came from the #TexasBlackout.
Can we reframe the conversation with the customer so that they understand that they’re owning their own personal power plant? And that the optimal operation of that plant requires some maintenance? If customers accept that, then many would be open to maintenance plans just like car dealerships offer maintenance plans. Some solar installers have already figured this out.
Getting the word out is also an opportunity for consumers to show leadership in the evolution of the grid. Regardless of the solutions that can be deployed, the grid in Texas must be updated. If people sit on the sidelines, the chance for change will remain slim. Either through direct political action or consumer level choices, this is a moment to steer the outcome.