Seven of the 10 costliest storms in U.S. history have occurred between 2004 and 2012. As the dollars stack up, more officials are expressing interest in trying to find some sort of causation. On August 12, 2013, the White House Council of Economic Advisers and the U.S. Department of Energy released a new assessment on how to best prepare the American energy grid against extreme weather and natural disasters. The Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages concludes that grid resiliency is becoming increasingly important as the effects of climate change become increasingly prevalent.
The report is based on the assumption that as climate change raises the temperature of air and water around the world, the frequency and intensity of severe weather will parallel those increases. As a result, researchers predict there will be more severe hurricanes, blizzards, heat waves, floods and temperatures. Likewise, the report asserts the grid resiliency needed to withstand these extreme weather conditions can be achieved with smart grid technology, which will reduce the frequency of power outages and the time it takes to restore power after an outage.
The Obama administration plans to increase resiliency with infrastructure maintenance and renovations. The proposed infrastructure changes focus on transmission and distribution structures, and include upgrading wooden electricity poles to concrete, steel or a composite material and better preparing energy supply and distribution stations for extreme weather.
While some people suggest the only responsible upgrade to the power grid is moving lines underground, that solution is problematic as well. Although moving utility lines underground would reduce the grid’s susceptibility to some forms of weather damage, normal repairs and maintenance would be increasingly costly and time consuming. Plus, the wires would still be at risk of damage underground due to an entirely different set of natural conditions such as flooding. What's more, the entire moving process might invite some sticker shock with estimates of anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million per mile.
Other proposed infrastructure changes include relocating facilities to areas less prone to flooding and building additional transmission lines. Once installed, these lines would improve grid flexibility by providing the ability to bypass damaged power lines, reducing the risk of blackouts.
Severe weather is the leading cause of power outages in the United States. These outages cost the economy billions of dollars by closing businesses and schools, putting immense strain on emergency services and disrupting the lives of millions of Americans. There were 11 billion-dollar weather-related disasters in 2012, the second most of any year on record behind 2011.
Investing in 21st century smart-grid technology will allow electricity to be returned to homes quicker after outages. Part of the solution is using microgrid technology, small-scale versions of the centralized electricity system. A key feature of a microgrid is its ability to detect, separate and isolate itself during a utility grid disturbance. As an added bonus, many microgrid designs are also able to function independently with the help of an energy storage system.
Once the large grid returns to normal capacity, microgrids can reconnect with the larger system without any changes in power output. The potential benefits of this technology are numerous. The health benefits alone include reducing the number of exposure-related illnesses from a lack of temperature control and carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly vented generators used during extended power outages.
In the end, this report builds on President Obama’s Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future, and the $4.5 billion given to the Energy Department in 2009 for investments in smart grid technology. If the proposed improvements to the grid are able to make the system more resilient to the conditions of climate change, we could wind up saving our economy billions of dollars. More importantly, the United States will be better prepared to withstand extreme weather and ensure the welfare of its citizens who depend on reliable energy.