Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria Teach America a Lesson it Should Have Learned Years Ago: It is Time to Invest in a More Resilient Electric Grid

By Casille Systermans, Policy Extern
Image: Energy.gov

Three major hurricanes hit the United States this year. About 300,000 Americans lost power because of Hurricane Harvey. Utility companies estimate that 16 million Americans in the Southeast lost power because of Hurricane Irma. In Puerto Rico, 3.4 million Americans are without power and are unlikely to have it restored for months because of Hurricane Maria. This is not the first time that millions of Americans have been left without power for weeks because of a major hurricane, but it should be the last.

For coastal states and territories, major hurricanes are an inevitability. Additionally, future storms are likely going to be more powerful because of rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. Powerful hurricanes are expensive. Hurricane Katrina, currently the costliest hurricane on record, caused $108 billion dollars in damage, and that doesn’t include the economic impacts, like lost wages and disruption of trade and other economic activity, associated with the recovery period. The total cost associated with Harvey and Irma has not been determined yet; however, they both have the potential to surpass the damage costs associated with Katrina. Additionally, the impacts of hurricanes are more than just economic. For example, in Hollywood, Florida, 11 senior citizens died when their nursing home lost power during Hurricane Irma.

The damage caused by major hurricanes can be mitigated if utilities invest in building a more resilient electric grid. First, utilities should start investing significant resources into distributed generation and storage systems, which can keep power running during and after major storm events. Any investments in distributed generation and storage should be grid connected and have the ability to provide power to other homes or businesses in the area. Additionally, wherever feasible, power lines should be moved underground. In Longboat Key, Florida, about 60 percent of the power lines are buried underground, and the areas with buried power lines did not lose power for any significant period during Hurricane Irma. In areas where is not feasible to move powerlines underground, utilities should invest in strengthening power lines by, for example, switching to steel power lines. Even with steel power lines, trees can still represent a threat to power lines during wind events. Therefore, utilities and local governments should invest in keeping trees near powerlines well-trimmed. Finally, since it is impossible to ensure that power will never be disrupted, utilities should maintain a disaster response plan to ensure that when power outages do occur, the power is restored as quickly and efficiently as possible.

There is no one-shot solution to building a more resilient electric grid, and therefore utilities should employ an all of the above strategy when planning to upgrade the electric grid. Cost is often cited as the primary obstacle to large-scale investment in upgrading the electric grid. The long-term benefits of investing in a more resilient energy grid far outweigh the short-term costs associated with that investment. For example, last year Longboat Key voters elected to borrow $50 million to bury all existing powerlines underground; however, it is much cheaper to put new power lines underground. Florida Power and Light (FPL) customers are currently paying a special charge to cover $318.5 million in Hurricane Matthew clean-up costs. Hurricane Matthew hit Florida in 2016 and is currently the ninth-costliest hurricane on record. However, even with the lowest cost estimates for Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey, Matthew is projected to become the twelfth-costliest hurricane on record. FPL customers are destined to receive another special charge for Hurricane Irma recovery. By investing more money upfront to strengthen the electric grid, utilities can cut down on future recovery costs for inevitable future hurricanes.

The recent storms that have devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico highlight the need to update the grid and underscore the simple truth that cost should no longer be used as an excuse to avoid investing in a resilient electric grid. America has experienced large-scale devastation from hurricanes before, and while it is certain that America will be hit by more hurricanes in the future, it is possible to avoid large-scale damage and prolonged power outages if America begins preparing for future storms now. The first step is investing in a more resilient electric grid throughout the east and gulf coasts and the Caribbean.

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