From Hurricane Katrina to droughts in the southwest, major weather events are happening at an increasing frequency, and their impacts are tremendous. One major consequence that affects everyone across the country is the threat these events pose to the power grid.
An Associated Press analysis of industry data released in December reveals that severe weather events have become the top cause of major power outages in America over the last decade.
Mississippi saw substations go under water during Hurricane Katrina, cutting power to thousands of homes across the state. In 2011, Hurricane Irene marked the first time that New York’s ConEd had more than 200,000 customers lose power. When Superstorm Sandy hit 14 months later, 1.1 million customers lost power.
"It was clear to us that weather patterns were changing fundamentally. Severe weather events were becoming more frequent and devastating," Allan Drury, a ConEd spokesman, told the AP.
The striking thing about the threat climate change poses to the grid is that these aren’t easy fixes -- it’s not as simple as patching a hole in the roof.
After a disaster like Sandy or Katrina, funds are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help companies get power restored, but those funds tend to be to repair the systems in place -- not to take preventative measures for the future.
Many substations in the Gulf Coast arearemain below sea level and susceptible to the same kind of damage that happened a decade ago. New York’s ConEd is able to make repairs and prepare for the future, but they’re spending over $1 billion on hardening and upgrades, according to the report.
It’s complicated in the southeast and California as well, where droughts have states asking electric companies to be more proactive about pruning dried out trees next to power lines. PG&E says they spent $260 million to “prepare for extreme weather and drought.”In 2015 alone, they hired 350 arborists and 19 foresters to prevent fires igniting from trees that could come into contact with power lines.
The answer to the headline question appears to be “yes.” Severe weather events are threatening the U.S. power supply, and it’s costing the country big economically. A 2013 White House report says that weather-related blackouts cost the economy between $19 billion to $33 billion annually.
So there is an economic incentive to warding against these disasters. The results of not guarding against grid failures like these is the endangered health of customers, major financial losses to companies and large economic ramifications across the country as homes, businesses and schools get shut down in blackout conditions.
Every part of the country is vulnerable and the solutions aren’t the same in every part of the country, with areas below sea level in the south, hurricanes and blizzards in the northeast, historic droughts and wildfires in the southwest, and both massive flooding and droughts in the Midwest. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the grid is vulnerable to shifting weather, and that guarding against weather-induced blackouts is something we must consider in the design of gas insulated substations and transmission lines.