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Blumsack: Long power outages aren’t inevitable after a disaster

By SETH BLUMSACK
Of Pennsylvania State University

A busy 2021 Atlantic hurricane season was still in full swing as some residents in the parts of Louisiana hit hardest by Hurricane Ida back in late August were still waiting for their power to be restored. And thousands of Texas residents endured multi-day outages after Hurricane Nicholas struck in mid-September.

That is making Americans painfully aware that U.S. energy grids are vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Hurricanes in the east and wildfires in the west — along with ice storms, floods and even landslides — can trigger widespread power shortages. And climate change is likely making many of these extreme events more frequent, more severe or both.

As a long-time researcher of the electric utility industry, I’ve noticed that the U.S. tends to treat extended power cuts from natural disasters as an unfortunate fact of life. Even in my home state of Pennsylvania, which isn’t typically in the path of major tropical storms, a surprising amount of energy infrastructure remains vulnerable.

But major energy disruptions are not inevitable consequences beyond our control. Rather, the rising number of large weather-related blackouts in recent years shows that utilities, regulators and government agencies aren’t planning for these events the right way.

What’s needed is an understanding that extreme weather events are fundamentally different from other kinds of power blackouts, and that resilience is not just about the grid itself, but also the people that it serves.

In most areas, power grids don’t fail unless they are pushed really hard. Utilities have built a tremendous amount of redundancy into energy delivery systems, and that’s the right approach if the major threats are equipment overloads on hot days or random equipment failures that could cascade into bigger problems.

Utilities and regulators have planned grid design around these kinds of failures for decades. And for the most part, it has worked well.

Severe outages from causes other than extreme weather don’t happen very often. The last really big one, on Aug. 14-15 of 2003, affected some 50 million people across the U.S. Northeast and Midwest and southern Canada.

But in the face of extreme weather events, the system needs a different kind of redundancy. Building more equipment in vulnerable places won’t keep the lights on if the entire area is hit by a disruptive event all at once.

In Louisiana, Hurricane Ida was so fierce it took down multiple power transmission lines feeding electricity into New Orleans and surrounding parishes. Some of this damaged infrastructure had been upgraded or put in place following previous severe storms.

Planning properly for resilience to extreme weather events requires doing some things differently.

First, it means realizing a lot of equipment in the same place will be affected all at once. One reason that Ida led to such large blackouts in New Orleans was older transmission lines that hadn’t been upgraded to withstand more severe weather, even though they ran beside newer ones.

Second, the goal should be to get people the services that they need, not necessarily to keep the grid up and running, which is very costly and just won’t be possible in all circumstances.

This means thinking about solutions outside of the traditional utility business model – for example, deploying lifeline systems such as solar panels, batteries or generators. This isn’t how utilities traditionally do business, but it would tide people over while power companies make large-scale grid repairs after storms.

Third, it’s time to acknowledge that the risks of extreme events are increasing faster than many utilities have been adapting. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric in California has only recently incorporated wildfire risk into its transmission planning, and is only now seriously considering burying major lines.

Energy, which serves much of the area hit hardest by Ida, has upgraded its design standards so newer lines can withstand higher winds. This is useful, but it did not prevent catastrophic outages during a period of dangerously hot weather.

Utilities and regulators still assume that the scale and likelihood of many weather-related risks has not changed in the past several decades. As climate change accelerates, utilities and regulators should be working to understand which risks are changing and how.

How much money to spend for resilient grids is a major question. What’s already clear is that building more, bigger infrastructure is not necessarily better.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us . Used with permission.

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