Hurricane Sandy is a powerful reminder of just how vulnerable our country’s electricity infrastructure is to extreme weather, and how a more localized, renewable energy system can strengthen the resilience of state and regional grids.
I live in California, a state that has experienced only a handful of rainy days in the last seven months, so it’s hard to even begin to imagine how people in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are coping with the aftermath of massive floods caused by Hurricane Sandy. And while we westerners definitely understand power outages, the scale and longevity of the blackouts that have darkened these states is equally scary and unbelievable. More than 8 million people lost power during Sandy and thousands of people living on Long Island are still in the dark.
Western states may not be as vulnerable to blackouts from hurricane storm surges, but we face our own threats to grid reliability: heat waves, wildfires, and an overall decline in snowpack and hydropower generation.
Climate change will make it harder to keep the lights on
A series of reports recently released by the California Natural Resources Agency and the California Energy Commission describe how rising sea levels and a hotter, drier climate will impact California’s electricity infrastructure, including the grid, which most of us depend on to power our homes and businesses.
One of these reports, prepared by analysts at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), found that higher temperatures will reduce our ability to generate power from natural gas plants and move electricity across transmission lines.
Climate change will also increase the frequency and intensity of forest fires in the West. We already see evidence of this: 8 of the 10 largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred since 2001. Fire damage to transmission lines is not limited to the destruction of the power lines themselves. Heat, smoke, and particulate matter from fires can also significantly reduce the ability to transmit electricity. The LBNL study finds that the probability of fires occurring near large transmission lines increases by as much as 300 percent in some parts of the state by the end of the century.
Local renewables can help us weather the storms of our future
One of the ways we can increase the resilience of the electricity grid is to develop more localized (or distributed) electricity generation. Wind and solar are relatively safe forms of energy, a feature we tend to under-appreciate until a disaster like Sandy looms. Renewables don’t pose safety risks associated with natural gas combustion and storage, and they won’t leak radiation, as we saw happen at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant following the tsunami in Japan last year.
Renewables are also more modular, which means that even if a section of a system is damaged, chances are the entire system won’t collapse. Large coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants are much more prone to cascading failures when part of a system is damaged. Early assessments indicate that renewable energy projects in the Northeast weathered Hurricane Sandy much better than their fossil and nuclear counterparts.
Distributed renewables reduce our dependence on transmission lines that are increasingly vulnerable to storms, fires, or extreme heat. In addition, renewables use less water than fossil or nuclear plants, a resilient characteristic for any infrastructure located in the West, which faces more drought in its future.
States across the country have enacted policies to support local renewables because of the clean air and job creation benefits these investments provide. Hurricane Sandy reminds us that clean, safe, and local supplies of electricity can also help protect us from massive power disruptions caused by extreme weather events and climate change.
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