The polar vortex that descended on Texas and led to dozens of deaths may seem like it was a world away from New York, but there are lessons we can use to protect ourselves during extreme winter weather. The problems that led to power outages, deaths by hypothermia, and house fires are all present in the Northeast.
Many have blamed iced-over wind turbines and snow-covered solar panels for the power failures in Texas, which we now know is not true. According to The New York Times, “The bulk of the power loss in Texas came from the natural gas supplies… as pipelines froze, making it difficult for [power] plants to get the fuel they needed.” Even nuclear power plants saw their power output reduced as water intakes used to cool nuclear fuel rods froze.
Unfortunately, these problems are not unique to Texas or the American South. In January 2019, a severe cold snap increased demand, and a malfunctioning valve saw natural gas pipelines in Rhode Island freeze up and run dry. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has also studied the impacts of freezing temperatures on natural gas production and found that deep-freeze events can have worse effects than hurricanes.
Texan homes were also woefully unprepared for the winter storm. Because the majority of Texas is a hot and humid place, builders in Texas have to think differently about how they construct homes than we do in New York, emphasizing ways to stay cool in the long hot summers instead of preparing homes for cold winters.
As the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) notes, one of the best ways to keep a home warm is “weatherization, which can involve relatively simple actions to better seal the home from the outdoors, add attic insulation, and fix leaky ducts. This alone can reduce heating demand by 11–14%.” But in warm parts of the country like Texas, contractors may avoid weatherization because it adds to the costs of construction. This has resulted in “almost 20% of homes in the South-Central United States…. [being] poorly insulated.” In a state of almost thirty million people, similar in population to Canada, that means almost six million people were suffering through sub-zero temperatures without proper weatherization.
This is not to say that New York is completely prepared for extreme weather events. Through our own research and work with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, we have found that over half of the homes in New York City assessed by energy contractors are missing proper insulation. Ensuring your home is properly weatherized is extremely important for avoiding unsafe temperatures during winter blackouts. As ACEEE has noted, “Better-sealed homes not only reduce energy consumption. They also help residents who have lost power stay warm longer.”
The ability of a home to stay at a safe temperature during a blackout is known as “passive survivability.” In the unlikely event of a multi-day power outage, a modern energy-efficient home can maintain temperatures of around sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Comparatively, older homes that lack proper insulation are likely to be around twenty degrees colder over that same time period. A few degrees can be the difference between staying warm and dealing with burst pipes or dangerous health issues like hypothermia.
In addition to the threat of freezing temperatures, there have been over 200 poisonings and two deaths from carbon monoxide in Texas. New Yorkers should be prepared for a power failure at times of extreme weather and should practice safety while keeping warm. This includes:
- Prevent generator accidents – Never run a generator that uses oil, gas, or propane without proper ventilation, and make sure to keep it outside. These generators produce carbon monoxide (CO), an odorless and colorless gas that can result in death if too much is inhaled.
- Avoid using stoves or gas ranges for warmth – Stoves were not designed for heating a home and emit too much CO over long periods of time, which can also result in CO poisoning. Electric ovens will not produce heat that can be felt further than a few feet away, but they will drive up electrical bills.
- Keep the area ventilated when your car is running – Whether keeping warm or charging your cell phone, leave your garage doors open or pull into the driveway while the car is running.
- Check your CO alarms – Especially in bedrooms, and they should be replaced every about ten years and tested every year.
- Heat your space safely – Space heaters are surprisingly deadly, responsible for over 25,000 residential fires and 300 deaths per year. Typically electric heaters are safer than fueled heaters. Make sure the space heater is plugged directly into a wall to avoid overloading extension cords and surge protectors, and keep the unit away from flammable objects like curtains and/or other furniture. Instead of running a space heater at night, try using an electric blanket to keep your bills lower.
There are a number of programs and resources that can help you weatherize your home and keep warm during freezing temperatures. To get started, call the Center’s Community Energy Advisors at 646-760-4030 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.