Hurricane Laura Threatens Gulf Coast Energy Infrastructure

, Senior Energy analyst | August 26, 2020, 4:24 pm EST
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Hurricane Laura is projected to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane late tonight along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Conditions will be severe, with pockets of rainfall totaling up to 15 inches, storm surge reaching a staggering 15 to 20 feet, and wind speeds topping 140 miles per hour. Evacuation orders have been declared across the region, racing to get people out of immediate harm’s way.

A hurricane, though, is often only the first part of what can become a rapidly widening disaster post-storm. In particular, lasting disruptions to critical infrastructure like electricity can prove another disaster all their own. This is made all the more urgent given that not all residents in the region have the capacity to leave, and all disaster response will be additionally complicated by navigating the challenges simultaneously posed by the ongoing pandemic.

The specter of a cascading and inequitably borne disaster makes it critically important to understand threats facing the region’s electricity grid. As utilities in the region are now warning, depending on the ultimate severity of the storm and the exact track that it takes, residents should be prepared for potentially long-lasting electricity outages and significant energy sector disruptions.

Here, references to keep track of to understand system impacts and their implications for communities and disaster response.

Electricity infrastructure at risk

This hurricane will pose multiple threats—high winds, flooding from storm surge and rainfall—to multiple grid components—power plants, substations, wires and poles—meaning many and varied points of failure. Wind can topple trees, rip down wires, and loft damaging debris; flooding can submerge equipment, force deenergizing of systems, and turn everyday objects into equipment-destroying battering rams. Real-time coastal inundation information can be tracked via NOAA here, broader hurricane conditions can be tracked via the National Hurricane Center here, all energy infrastructure in the storm’s path can be tracked via the Energy Information Administration here, and energy-related Situation Reports will be posted by the Department of Energy here.

Hurricane Laura has the potential to impact a wide swath of area, meaning multiple electricity utilities could be facing outages. Here are three utility-based outage trackers to watch, plus the EIA’s Hourly Electric Grid Monitor, which allows for a higher-level perspective on impacts to the system:

We will also be keeping an eye on the status and safety of multiple nuclear power plants in the region; my colleague Edwin Lyman, a nuclear safety specialist, is a particularly valuable resource in this area, and can be followed for up-to-date information here.

Concerningly, a key tool in restoring power quickly is utility restoration workers. Often, to surge to the numbers required in the immediate aftermath of a severe storm, utility crews are brought in from across the region—and sometimes even across the country—to provide mutual aid. Covid-19, and ensuring workers and communities are sufficiently protected, will undoubtedly complicate, and potentially slow, this response.

Energy infrastructure at risk

In addition to the electricity grid, it is important to recognize potentially widespread impacts to the broader energy system, too, given that the hurricane’s target region is pocked with offshore oil and gas rigs as well as home to numerous fossil fuel-related processing, refining, and transporting facilities.

As tracked by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement here, hundreds of offshore platforms have been evacuated and tens of rigs have been evacuated or moved. Together, these actions have resulted in nearly 85 percent of all Gulf of Mexico oil production and over 60 percent of natural gas production being shut in.

Meanwhile, multiple refineries and petrochemical complexes have also shut down in advance of the storm, as did LNG export facilities and some transmission operations. However, even if operations shut down, major storms can still result in significant environmental and health damages from disruptions to these facilities. Such threats are now made all the more concerning given the Environmental Protection Agency’s continued monitoring relief extended to polluters through the end of the month.

It is at once unfathomable, and yet almost certain to be the case, that once again communities will be left on their own to understand immediate health effects and environmental consequences arising from any damages to these polluting facilities and toxic sites.

Issues to track following the storm

As Hurricane Laura bears down, we again urge all people in the region to follow emergency orders, and we keep the safety of communities and first responders front of mind in the face of this catastrophic event.

In the aftermath, we will be tracking to see who gets power back first, how long it takes, whether recent investments boosted resilience, and which outage impacts could have been avoided—and how to ensure the avoidable outages don’t happen again.

Climate impacts are coming at the electricity system—and all our nation’s infrastructure—hard and fast. Insufficient planning means people pay the price. Utilities, regulators, and policymakers must require that climate impacts are factored into investment decisions, and grid resilience must be prioritized to protect people most at risk, for whom even a brief outage could pose life-threatening risks. That means boosting the resilience of the grid to all the climate impacts the grid will face, while at the same time recognizing that the grid cannot be made invincible, and thus communities must also be provided with opportunities for resilience from the ground-up, such as microgrids and batteries serving community centers, hospitals, and emergency responders to start.

 

Tracking Resource Source Resource Link
Real-time coastal inundation tracking National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Link
Hurricane weather hazards National Hurricane Center Link

 

Energy infrastructure in storm’s path Energy Information Administration Link

 

Hurricane Laura Energy Situation Reports Department of Energy Link
Power outage maps for Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Texas Entergy Link
Power outage maps for Houston-area CenterPoint Energy

 

CenterPoint Energy Link
National and regional Hourly Electric Grid Monitor Energy Information Administration Link
Updates on nuclear power plant safety and status

 

Edwin Lyman, Director of Nuclear Power Safety, UCS Link
Gulf of Mexico Oil and Gas Activities

 

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Link
NOAA

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