Are energy grids disaster-ready?

 By Michelle Leslie

The power of Hurricane Harvey unleashed more than just torrents of water on Texas when the storm slammed its way onshore in late August. Harvey halted oil and gas production, driving up costs across North America as refineries shut down. The impacts of the storm went far beyond the price at the pumps…

Hundreds of thousands of customers found themselves without power as electrical grids struggled to stay online and available. It’s a story that would play out again when Irma smashed into Florida, leaving millions without electricity.
As the southeast continues to clean up from a battering of hurricanes this season, October marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy which made landfall as a post-tropical storm in New Jersey, bringing record storm surges of over 10 feet to communities along the coastlines of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Over 100 people died as a result of Sandy which cut power to over 8.5 million people. Some remained without heat or light for over a week.
It was the costliest and most destructive storm to hit the northeastern United States in over 30 years, putting energy grids to the test from the northeast all the way south to Florida.
“A few years ago, with Sandy, it brushed Florida and then hit New York, (Connecticut) and New Jersey. The strength of the storm and the flooding that it caused was unprecedented,” stated Peter Robbins, generations communications manager, Florida Power & Light. “We took some lessons out of that and installed more flood monitoring equipment at sub-stations to help us monitor flood waters and de-energize equipment before it gets flooded and damaged.”
Extreme weather events brought about by climate change pose challenges for critical infrastructures like energy grids. Raising and/or redesigning bridges and levees, retrofitting buildings and burying powerlines are all measures that can help to strengthen grids and make them better equipped to withstand such extremes. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report outlined solutions and energy sector vulnerabilities with respect to climate change.

Aerial view of homes that were ravaged by fire as a result of Hurricane Sandy (Andrea Booher/FEMA, Wikimedia)

In the southeast, increases in extreme heat, rainfall and more intense hurricanes (brought about by warmer ocean waters) will place added strain on the energy grid, “Electricity demand for cooling rises with increasing air and water temperatures, yet higher temperatures reduce the capacity of thermoelectric power plants and transmission lines.”
Following Sandy, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), for the state of Connecticut, invested in a statewide microgrid pilot program; the first of its kind in the U.S. The program’s focus is to improve safety and quality of life for residents and to ensure that critical infrastructures doesn’t lose power following a widespread grid outage during severe weather emergencies.
“Pairing microgrids with renewable sources like solar is going to be the most effective because we’ve seen that renewable sources like fuel cells, solar and wind can also benefit the power system in times of extreme weather events,” according to Claire Coleman, climate and clean energy attorney, Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “Solar and wind might be able to provide power at a time to a smaller subset when the entire grid is knocked out.”
DEEP is currently in the middle of a three-year comprehensive strategy and Coleman is hoping for bigger investments for microgrids and renewable energy.
“We have been growing renewables in (the state) and it’s a high priority for us as part of our response to climate change and our attempt to set up the grid of the future and to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases,” stated Coleman. “There has been some build out of renewables in Connecticut. As a clean energy climate action coalition, we have been asking for the state to build out more distributed energy and allow a shared solar program so right now we are in the middle of a 6-megawatt pilot which would allow for shared solar.”

A scheme of microgrid with renewable energy resources in grid-connected mode (Le Anh Dao, Wikimedia)

Like a community garden, where individuals pay to share in the harvest, the shared solar program would provide opportunities for people who live in multi-unit dwellings or who can’t afford to invest in a renewable project on their own, the opportunity to buy into a solar plot and own a share of the renewable energy project.
“It’s woven into the fabric of our daily lives so when that phone starts to lose its charge and you don’t know that you can charge it, folks start to get anxious and want their power back on. Speedy restoration is a big priority for us,” stated Robbins.
The U.S., second in the world for global energy consumption, (only China uses more), is more reliant than ever before on the energy grid — from powering mobile devices, the internet and basic services that people expect like police, fire and clean water. The need for energy resiliency investments is now paramount.

READ MORE: In the eye of the storm by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.