Extreme weather increasingly threatening U.S. power grid

Published 5 January 2016

Coast Electric Power Association experienced the full measureunt of a hurricane when Katrina landed on the coast of Mississippi. Many homes and business were left in darkness as the hurricane destroyed the substations. The substations have been since repaired, but are not any safer than before the storm hit.

When Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in 2011, it was the first time in the history of Con Ed that more than 200,000 customers lost power from a storm. Super storm Sandy struck fourteen months later, followed by a devastating Nor’easter, leaving 1.1 million customers in the dark.

ABC News reports that an AP analysis of industry data found that these storms are a growing threat to, and the leading cause of outages in, the U.S. electric grid. The past decade saw power outages related to bad weather increase, which means that power companies must find a way address this problem.

It was clear to us that weather patterns were changing fundamentally. Severe weather events were becoming more frequent and devastating,” Allan Drury, a Con Ed spokesman, told ABC News in an e-mail.

I think it is an open question as to whether utilities are investing enough in the infrastructure needed to harden the system against storms, and on simple but effective things like tree trimming,” said Roshanak Nateghi who is the author of a report in the journal Risk Analysis in May which found that the U.S. power grid is increasingly blacking out when hit with severe weather, and lags behind other developed nations in terms of reliability.

Electric companies are looking to upgrade their systems and harden them to the effects of storms. This is an expensive undertaking, however, which the smaller cooperatives cannot assume without federal assistance. Con Ed, a large investor owned company, has invested $1 billion to harden its system and Drury says that the utility has been able to afford all the upgrades that it wanted.

The upgrades are costly, but the outages are costly as well. According to a 2013 White House report, power outages related to weather take out between $18 billion to $33 billion from the nation’s economy.

Electric companies, therefore, try as much as possible to upgrade their systems to safeguard them from the weather. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offer utility companies funds to facilitate their rebuilding process after catastrophes. Coast Electric Power Association, for example, received about $100 million in FEMA public assistance grants, but the money only allowed it to repair the flooded substations to pre-storm conditions.

FEMA offered more funds which would have been used to raise the flooded substations, but it would have taken too much time to make an analysis of everything involved and would have delayed the construction needed to repair the substations.. The delay would have left more than 6,500 accounts,spread over the urban Mississippi areas in three counties as well as r rural ones further inland, in darkness. Once the work got underway when the funds were received, the company could not change the conditions which were attached to the funding, so the substations could only be rebuilt in a way which returned them to the way they were before the storm struck.

Drought also contributes to power outages, as the case of California shows. Last year, regulators ordered the state’s investor-owned utilities to set priorities for inspecting and removing dead and sick trees near their power lines, warning that climate change has caused, and exacerbated, numerous wildfires which have threatened their facilities. The utilities were told they could ask for financial assistance to carry this out.

— Read more in Roshanak Nateghi et al., “Critical Assessment of the Foundations of Power Transmission and Distribution Reliability Metrics and Standards,” Risk Analysis (15 May 2015) (DOI: 10.1111/risa.12401)