Extreme weather poses increasing threat to US power grid

20 Jan 2016 | Author: | No comments yet »

Extreme weather poses increasing threat to US power grid.

WAVELAND, Miss. (AP) — When Hurricane Katrina’s punishing storm surge plowed ashore, it swamped seven of Coast Electric Power Association’s substations, vital to powering thousands of Mississippi homes and businesses. The facilities have long since been repaired, but a decade after the storm they remain at the same elevation, and just as vulnerable to catastrophic hurricanes. The number of weather-related power outages has climbed over the last decade, with the greatest spikes in 2008 and 2011, according to the AP analysis and independent studies.

That leaves Coast Electric and other utilities across the country struggling to balance customer costs with the need for improvements to counter the rising number of violent storms, floods and droughts threatening the U.S. power grid’s core infrastructure. The eye of Katrina ripped through the coastal city of Waveland in late August 2005, leveling neighborhoods, destroying infrastructure and knocking out power to Coast Electric’s entire coverage area.

Facing sweltering summer heat and $110 million in damage, the small nonprofit cooperative focused on restoring power to customers as quickly as possible, said vice president of engineering Scott Brown. The old substations that flooded were repaired to pre-storm conditions — at the time, it would have been impractical to raise them or move them elsewhere. After the latter storm, American Electric Power customers had extended electricity outages and ended up paying $57.5 million in their utility bills for system repairs, which remains a record for any Ohio utility. “This effort was not so much a restoration effort as it was a rebuilding effort,” said Pablo Vegas, president and chief operating officer of AEP Ohio, in comments days after the June 2012 storm. Coast Electric was able to make some major improvements post-Katrina; it used a large mound of dirt to elevate a new substation 18 feet above sea level.

Nationally, fragmented data collection makes it difficult to gauge whether utilities have adequately hardened their systems against more extreme weather. When Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in 2011, it marked the first time in the history of Con Ed that more than 200,000 customers lost power from a storm. In a study published in August, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University surveyed a sample of 195 utilities and found that from 2000 to 2012, increasingly severe weather was tied to longer-lasting outages. Superstorm Sandy struck just 14 months later, quickly followed by a devastating Nor’easter, leaving 1.1 million customers in the dark. “It was clear to us that weather patterns were changing fundamentally.

A 2013 report by the White House said weather-related blackouts cost the U.S. economy an annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion, when adjusted for inflation, from 2003 to 2012. The report said 50 deaths in the aftermath of Sandy were attributed to power outages, including senior citizens who died from hypothermia and others poisoned by carbon monoxide from generators. Last year, regulators in drought-stricken California ordered the state’s investor-owned utilities to set priorities for inspecting and removing dead and sick trees near their power lines, warning that “climate change has facilitated and exacerbated numerous wildfires” that have damaged and threatened their facilities. But after a wildfire killed two people, destroyed 475 homes and scorched 70,000 acres in the tinder-dry Sierra Nevada foothills in September, homeowners and their attorneys are asking whether San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. did enough to clear dry trees flanking its power lines. Barry Anderson, a PG&E vice president, acknowledged in mid-September that the fire could have been sparked when a pine tree “may have contacted a PG&E line in the vicinity of the ignition point.” More than 50 victims have sued PG&E and its tree-trimming contractors for property damage, and one recently filed suit also blames the companies for the death of an 82-year-old man in the town of Mountain Ranch, California, claiming the companies “showed a conscious disregard for human life.” PG&E spokesman Joe Molica said the company had spent $260 million to prepare for extreme weather and drought.

This year alone, he said, PG&E hired 350 arborists and 19 foresters to inspect and remove dead trees and brush near the utility’s 134,000 miles of lines, and also bought cameras for fire lookout towers and funded rural fire safe councils. State fire officials are still investigating the cause of the blaze, which officials recently said was the second-most devastating fire in a drought year that so far has seen more than 6,000 wildfires, about one-third more than the recent average.

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