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Powering Up with Dr. Joshua D. Rhodes

Rhodes researches electrical grids and shares some of what he's learned with Austin Life

Austin, a city beat for heat waves over deep freezes, was grossly underprepared for February’s snow storm. No one needs to be reminded of the rolling blackouts and wide-spread power outages that in some cases lasted several days. Dr.Joshua D. Rhodes, founding partner of IdeaSmiths, an energy-focused company that has deep expertise in Texas, shares educated options based on facts and research on how Austin and individuals can prepare to be better protected from unpredictable weather. 

What does IdeaSmiths do? We help utility clients make more sense of their data and develop market reports and strategies for new market entrants. We have also developed a complex and detailed model of the Texas electricity grid (ERCOT) that allows us to model how the system will evolve over time, preform under new sets of policy, and respond to a changing climate.

You also teach at UT. I mostly teach data analytics courses to graduate students. The classes focus on how to gather, clean, and manage diverse sets of data and how to visualize both the data and their results in intuitive ways so that, as scientists and engineers, they can be better communicators of their results. In a nutshell, I designed the class around “what tools I wish I had had coming into graduate school”. 

What steps would you recommend Austin take to make its energy system more resilient? I think we should do a better job of being able to map out critical loads on the system. Knowing exactly where those loads are might have helped us better manage the blackouts that we saw in February. Homes in this area are not really designed for such cold temperatures as we usually think of summer in our designs. We could consider building out homes better, to higher energy codes, such that even if we lose power, the homes are able to hold in the heat longer. Whenever homes in Austin are sold, an energy audit is required, but there is no minimum standard that the homes have to be upgraded to as a result of the audit. It might be a good time to do such a thing to make sure we’rel better prepared for future disasters. 

Do you think this weather was a fluke, or going to become more of the norm in Texas? While it’s hard enough to get the weather right in a 10-day forecast, climate science is telling us that the weather will become more variable over time. In Texas, that might not just mean hotter, dryer summers, but we might get more of these intense winter storms. I think we will see more of this going forward, and it would be good for us to prepare.

Would a home that had solar panels maintained power during the storm?  Only if they had an “off-grid” and/or backup battery storage. Most of these off-grid systems are designed to carry a whole house through just a couple of hours of blackout. So, over a few days, one would want to just prioritize smaller critical loads, like a refrigerator or small space heater, in order to make it last longer.

What does making your home more sustainable entail? In general, the best approach is to make a home use less energy overall. Boring things like insulation, filling in cracks, and good windows can go a long way in keeping a home comfortable for longer while using less energy. Only after these basic bases are covered should one consider things such as solar panels. 

What do you think is a misconception about having a solar powered home? I think that most people consider a solar-powered home to be “efficient”, but that is not always the case. Making sure that the home is well insulated to the elements should be the first thing done.

Anything you’d like to add? Austin is a great place and I’m happy to call it home. While we have our challenges, it was great to see how people came together during the blackouts because all we really have in this world is each other.