Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, and the Growing Risks of Storm Surge and Blackouts

October 27, 2015 | 1:00 pm
Steve Clemmer
Director of Energy Research & Analysis

Superstorm Sandy was a big wake-up call for the Northeast when it made landfall near Atlantic City, NJ, on October 29, 2012. In addition to the tragic loss of lives and property, Sandy caused billions of dollars of damages and left more than 8 million people in 21 states without power. On the third anniversary of Sandy, a new UCS analysis looks at what steps have been taken to make our electricity grid less vulnerable and more resilient to power outages from storm surge and coastal flooding on the East and Gulf Coasts. The answer? Some, but not enough.

Sandy storm surge

Flood damage from storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/U.S. Air Force

Sandy shut down or damaged at least 165 electric substations, several large power plants, 7,000 transformers, and 15,000 electrical poles. Storm surge and coastal flooding were major contributors to the damages and subsequent outages. Hospitals had to evacuate patients. Homes and businesses were without power for days and even weeks.

And Sandy wasn’t an isolated incident. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005, and Gustav and Ike in 2008, also wreaked havoc on the grid. Each knocked out power to one to three million customers and damaged 200 to 500 substations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Despite our growing reliance on electricity, our power grid is increasingly susceptible to failure due to old age and poor condition, and the rate of outages from severe weather has been rising.



The new UCS analysis, Lights Out? Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help, shows how major power plants and substations are exposed to storm surge flooding from various categories of hurricanes now and in the future in five metropolitan regions: the Delaware Valley, southeastern Virginia, South Carolina Lowcountry, southeastern Florida, and the central Gulf Coast.

Building off three recent UCS reports (Power Failure, Encroaching Tides, and Stormy Seas), the report also highlights the need to better evaluate and plan for these risks, as well as increase investments in protecting the grid and deploying clean energy solutions that will make the grid more resilient AND reduce carbon emissions.

The potential for widespread outages is high and growing

Here are some of our key findings:

  • If Category 3 hurricanes hit these five regions today, dozens of power plants and more than 400 hundred major substations could be flooded unless the utilities that own the facilities have taken sufficient steps to protect them. The share of exposed substations ranged from 16 percent in southeastern Florida to nearly 70 percent in the central Gulf Coast.

  • Power outages can become widespread once more than a handful of generators or major substations are knocked offline. In all regions examined, the analysis found evidence of the potential for such widespread losses if electricity infrastructure is not sufficiently protected, as floodwater depths could reach 5 to 10 feet, and even 10 to 15 feet at many exposed sites.
  • As sea levels rise, coastal flooding from severe storms will reach further inland, and infrastructure in its path will be submerged at greater depths. For example, the analysis found that in southeastern Florida, the number of major substations exposed to flooding from a Category 3 storm could more than double by 2050 and triple by 2070.

You can see maps of other regions showing the power plants and major substations at various inundation levels at different points in time.

Hardening our electricity infrastructure requires foresight

Most coastal infrastructure is designed to meet 100-year flood protection standards based on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood hazard zones. Unfortunately, these standards are based on historical data that do not incorporate future sea level rise. State and local governments can increase the stringency of these standards, but few have conducted vulnerability assessments to inform that change.

With electricity infrastructure lasting 40 years or more, and sea levels projected to rise by more than a foot by 2050, storm surge could eventually submerge equipment where no such flooding had ever been experienced or was ever expected.

Fortunately, some forward-looking policies and tools are emerging at the local, state, and federal levels to address this problem. Lights Out points to examples from New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

The report recommends that utilities consider adding more protective measures, such as natural and artificial buffers, modifying existing infrastructure, such as elevating substations and using submersible equipment—or retiring or moving facilities away from the coastline.

Clean energy: A pathway to resilient power and reduced emissions

Resilient power offers a system that is flexible, can respond to challenges, can quickly recover, and remains available when we need it most. Developing resilient power means shifting away from a centralized electricity system to a more decentralized one designed to meet critical needs even during extreme weather.

When the power goes out, critical facilities typically rely on backup diesel generators until the main electric grid can be restored. However, backup diesel generators present a host of challenges, including being heavily polluting and prone to failure due to infrequent use.

In contrast, clean energy technologies are an attractive alternative to make the grid more resilient while reducing carbon emissions. Some of the most promising clean energy solutions include:

  • rooftop solarRenewable energy sources such solar and wind power, coupled with batteries or other energy storage systems, can provide electricity even when the sun sets, the wind stops blowing, or the centralized grid goes dark. The cost of wind and solar has fallen 60-70 percent since 2009, while the cost of battery storage is also declining. When it’s not an emergency, these technologies also generate valuable clean electricity for everyday use.
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) plants can greatly increase fuel efficiency while supplying both heat and power to critical facilities.
  • Energy efficiency technologies and measures that reduce electricity use in buildings can help save money by reducing the size of the system needed to supply power to critical loads.
  • Microgrids can incorporate these distributed clean energy technologies into self-contained systems that generate and consume all the energy within a compact geographical “island”; or they can be interconnected with the broader electric grid and choose when to shift into island mode.

Lights Out points to programs in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York that are deploying these technologies.

Limiting future impacts

The increasing threat of climate-related sea level rise and storm surge to our coastal electricity infrastructure is cause for serious concern. As the single largest contributor to U.S. global warming emissions—representing nearly one-third of total emissions in 2013—the power sector has a critical role to play in ensuring that we avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

While some initial steps have been taken at the local, state, and federal levels to protect the grid and deploy clean, resilient power systems, the investments are not yet up to the scale of the problem. Strong state and federal policies are needed to achieve deep cuts in carbon emissions to limit the severity and cost of future climate impacts.

Implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil power plants—along with adopting and strengthening state renewable energy and efficiency standards and extending federal tax credits—are all important steps for keeping the lights on.