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Weathering the grid challenge

Adapting to a Changing Climate: Strengthening Our Power Grid Against Natural Disasters

Daren Wang
/
January 16, 2024

Increasing Natural Disasters and Power Outages: A Growing Concern

Does it seem like there are more natural disasters these days? Or that the power goes out more often than it used to?

You’re not imagining things. According to the World Meteorological Association, we are getting more natural disasters, and they are more intense. That bad weather along with an aging electrical grid translates into more outages too.

Record-Breaking Weather Disasters in 2023

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) October national climate report, the count of billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States has reached 25 in 2023. This marks the highest number in 43 years. The report notes that these 25 weather events, causing at least $1 billion in damages each, exceeded the previous record set in 2020 by three. The cost estimations have been adjusted for inflation to the year 2023.

The Impact of Severe Weather on U.S. Regions

Among the significant events were 19 rounds of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes occurring from March to September, primarily affecting the southern and central U.S. Additionally, there were instances of floods, a hurricane, a wildfire, a drought, and a winter cold snap contributing to the financial toll.

Challenges in Grid Resilience: Distribution, Transmission, and Generation

Preparing the grid for these weather disasters is a top priority for U.S. utilities, but not an easy one. When people talk about “The Grid,” they are talking about what is perhaps the most complicated machine ever built. But when it comes to making it ready for adverse weather, there are three components that most utilities are focused on:

  • Distribution
  • Transmission
  • Generation

Generation

When we think of power outages, we usually think the problem is getting the power to our homes, not generating. But severe weather can wreak havoc on generating plants. In particular, gas-fired plants caused nearly catastrophic failures in recent years. These plants are usually fed by gas pipelines, but many of those lines have not been outfitted to withstand the extreme cold that recent winter storms have brought.

Last December, Winter Storm Eliot resulted in at least 52 deaths and large swaths of the country huddling in the cold under blackout conditions. One of the culprits was natural gas plants. At one point as much as 20 percent of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power generation was disabled due to frozen gas supply lines.

Although the severity of the storm caught many off-guard, the fragility of the natural gas supply to power plants should not have been a surprise to plant operators. The exact same issue had surfaced in Texas in 2021 when much of that state’s grid collapsed due to natural gas plant shutdowns.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued new guidelines for winterizing power generation plants. Under normal conditions, the U.S. grid has plenty of generation redundancy. If a power plant has to shut down, there are other plants that can supply enough power to make up for it. That’s true even for a normal regional storm, but a storm such Eliot, which brought extreme conditions to large portions of the country, requires more resiliency from all the generators on the grid.

Transmission

If you think of the grid like roads, transmission is the Federal Interstate System—our superhighways. They move huge amounts of energy in high voltage lines across long distances. Much of these lines are attached to tall steel towers—the type we are most used to seeing in rural areas.

As extreme weather events become more commonplace, these towers and lines need to become strengthened. When Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in 2021, none of the eight high-voltage transmission lines that supplied power to New Orleans were able to withstand the storm.

Another type of extreme weather that affects transmission lines is drought. In drought-stricken California, transmission lines have been blamed for several of the worst wildfires in that state’s history. As a result, Pacific Gas and Electric has occasionally been forced to shut down transmission lines during wildfire events to prevent additional blazes.

As extreme weather becomes more common, there’s an increasing call for more vulnerable transmission infrastructure to be made to withstand category-4-hurricane winds.

Regular inspections and maintenance of transmission lines includes cutting back any vegetation that might pose risks. The process is required by all utilities, but the schedule for those services varies. Increasing the frequency of those visits can be expensive, especially when dealing with remote areas, but it’s one of the few ways that can help avoid escalating droughts intro more tragic events.

Distribution

This is the part of the grid that is directly attached to your home. There are millions of miles of local distribution power lines running through the U.S.  If you lose power during a windstorm, it’s often because a tree falls somewhere in your neighborhood and crashes into one of these distribution lines.

Burying these lines are one of the most effective ways to avoid those types of outages, but that can be very expensive. It’s not uncommon for new housing projects to opt to bury unsightly power lines, but changing things for existing homes can cost upwards of $20,000 per home.

One of the most effective ways to harden the local distribution lines is regular maintenance. Replacing aging power lines and poles, cutting back nearby vegetation, and ensuring that all connections are up to code can reduce the likelihood that severe weather will cause an outage.

Conclusion: The Road Ahead for Grid Hardening

While challenges persist, utilities must continue identifying vulnerabilities and making prudent, cost-effective investments in grid hardening. The ongoing process requires a delicate balance between the needs of utilities, regulators, customers, and other stakeholders to enhance resilience against the escalating impact of weather-related events.

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