Spate of Nor’easters Rips Down Wires, Sparks Calls to Do Better

March 20, 2018 | 10:11 am
Photo: Western Area Power/CC BY (Flickr)
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

Over the first two weeks of March, three separate storms raged their way through my home state of Massachusetts. Each triggered life-threatening emergencies and what are certain to be costly, long-lasting cleanups.

They also resulted in massive and widespread power outages.

Thundering wind, crashing trees, and roiling floodwaters led to a significant number of homes and businesses getting thrust into the cold and dark; all told, each storm resulted in the loss of power for hundreds of thousands of customers across the state.

Two weeks, and three jarring reminders of just how dependent we are on the grid—and how vulnerable that grid is to failure.

And now, another storm is barreling on down the Pike.

Let’s make sure these aren’t suffered in vain.

Grid’s year in review

Our electricity grid is at once an incredible modern marvel and a staggeringly vulnerable piece of critical infrastructure.

And it’s not just been Nor’easters reminding us of that.

Indeed, this past year has been something of a master class in highlighting all the many ways the natural world can yank our electricity system to its knees, from flooding, to hurricanes, to wildfires, and more.

And it’s not just weather. Last week, the US government released an alert regarding Russian government cyber activity relating to energy and other critical infrastructure. Cyber threats are real, and growing.

At the same time, our society is rapidly tipping toward wholesale dependence on an interconnected world, one entirely reliant upon uninterrupted power. Which means that as incredible as these advances have been, it’s also increasingly true that everything stops when the power goes out.

So how do we make sure the lights stay on?

Complex problem, complex solu…zzzzzz

The challenges facing the grid are many, and there’s no one clean fix to solve them all. Worse, there’s no way that we’ll ever stop all power outages from occurring. Which all too often means that lawmakers and regulators find it’s easier to simply leave the problem alone.

But as the hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses across Massachusetts that lost power can attest, willful ignorance in the face of complex problems is an entirely unacceptable solution.

Here, a quick consideration of the multiple parallel vulnerabilities that exist along each part of the power system—vulnerabilities that must be overcome to make the grid more reliable and resilient throughout:

  • Generation. There’s no electricity without a power source, which means that ensuring our power plants can keep on generating is of first-order importance when trying to maintain our power supply. Threats facing generators are many and varied, though rarely result in customer outages: rising seas overtaking coastal sites, warming waters and droughts decreasing the reliability of thermal generators like coal and nuclear plants, an onslaught of cyber attacks looming over complex generator controls, and dependence on a system that’s predominantly reliant upon large central generators as opposed to a multitude of decentralized sources.
  • Transmission. To get electricity from power plants to end users, our system relies upon the transmission grid, a complex network of high-voltage wires that help convey electricity long distances. If these lines go down—whether from trees, fires, extreme weather, or mismanaged operational controls—large disruptions can result.
  • Distribution. Transmission lines bring electricity the majority of the way, but it’s the distribution system that actually delivers power to the end user. And here’s where so often the outages occur. From falling branches to floodwaters to squirrels and more, threats to the distribution network are many and varied.
  • Operations. Improving operations is perhaps most important of all, as it’s a near certainty that the power will go out. If utilities don’t have a plan to return power to the system as expeditiously as possible—while minding the particular and compounded threats facing vulnerable populations and critical services—power failures can quickly cascade into far worse disasters. An operations plan that is centered on system resilience enables rapid bounce-back in the face of inevitable blackouts.

One of the things that makes boosting grid resilience and reliability so challenging is that different areas of vulnerability require different solutions. Many, though, are rooted in the fundamental principle that strength flows through diversity, from generator sizes and types to network pathways and redundancies.

Some solutions are straight forward, like tree-trimming to keep snow-laden branches off power lines, and flood planning to keep critical assets out of the water. Others are more complex, like developing renewables-based microgrids to ensure critical services and vulnerable populations are powered up even if the broader grid goes down.

But the two things all solutions absolutely must have? A commitment to forward-looking perspectives, where climate impacts are considered over the full lifetime of infrastructure investments, and sustained diligence to see the solutions to a complex problem through.

Embracing the slog of incremental solutions

Slowly, we’re seeing the power of painful repetition to eventually, eventually activate the search for solutions.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Massachusetts developed a $40 million initiative to bolster community electricity resilience projects served by clean energy technologies, alongside a series of additional resilience-supportive programs. Utilities have also been improving operations response plans reflecting learning from storms past. And finally, the state is also working to drive down its carbon emissions, staving off the worst of climate impacts, through clean energy commitments large and small.

And now, with shovels still scraping away at the mess of the last storm, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has filed legislation that would authorize over $1.4 billion in investments to make the Commonwealth more resilient in the face of climate impacts.

It would be another critical step in the right direction. But still, it cannot be the last step.

We need to make sure not only that such a conversation keeps progressing in Massachusetts, but also that it takes place all across the country. As these Nor’easters have shown, there’s work to do to meet the challenges of today, let alone the rapidly evolving threats of tomorrow.

For long-lived infrastructure upon which we all so heavily rely, we need a system ready and able to face conditions now and in the future. And what’s more, we need leaders who are ready, willing, and able to do the hard work of steadily chipping away at solving a complex problem.

Posted in: Energy

About the author

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Julie McNamara is a senior energy analyst with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her research focuses on policies and measures that facilitate a rapid, sustained, and broadly beneficial transition of our nation’s energy system.