Harvey was the first major hurricane to hit the Gulf region since Katrina in 2005, and energy infrastructure has changed dramatically since then with the advent of wind and solar power. For that reason, energy observers have been keenly interested in the impact that Harvey would have on wind farms and other renewable energy installations when it hit Texas on August 28.
Texas is an especially significant test case because its wind industry has been surging in recent years.
The news for wind power so far looks good, and storm-related power outages were limited to the area of Harvey’s impact. In contrast, the effects of the hurricane have rippled out to impact gasoline prices far beyond Texas — and the environmental consequences are piling up, too.
Texas wind farms at risk from Harvey?
Coastal wind farms in Texas formed one area of concern. Before the storm hit, Bloomberg predicted the worst with this headline:
Harvey Set to Overpower Wind in State Generating the Most
That headline, though, was a little over the top. Wind turbines are designed to shut down and “shelter in place” in case of potentially damaging winds, generally at about 55 miles per hour.
Actual damage to the turbines would not kick in until wind speeds reach the 140-mile-per-hour range of a Category 4 hurricane. Since hurricanes rapidly lose force over land, even a storm of that makes landfall at that magnitude is not likely to damage inland wind farms.
Coastal wind farms did shut down and evacuate in advance of the storm, but then again, so did offshore oil rigs and onshore fossil fuel facilities. In that regard the impact of Harvey was similar for fossil fuel and renewable energy.
That’s where the similarity ends, though. Hurricane Harvey tore through the Texas petroleum infrastructure, with a ripple effect far beyond the state. Offshore oil rigs went back on line quickly but shipping routes and onshore refineries and have remained impacted by flooding a full week after the storm hit.
Concerns over safety risks and the availability of land transportation routes caused some onshore gas and oil drillers to reduce or halt production, and the Colonial pipeline line — the major petroleum land route from Texas to points east — also shut down operations.
Given these impacts, a gasoline price spike was bound to occur. The question was, how much?
Gasoline prices spike
Some analysts anticipated that the global oil glut would help smooth the impact on gasoline prices. The U.S. Department of Energy authorized the release of crude oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which could also mitigate the worst of the impact. Incoming supplies from overseas will also help ease any potential shortages.
Nevertheless, gas prices began inching up shortly after the storm passed. By September 1, prices were already reaching a “worst case” scenario. ABC news reported that the national average price per gallon for regular grade gasoline was up 20 cents per gallon, to $2.56, and could peak at $2.75.
That’s just the average. Prices went higher in Texas, with one station in Dallas reportedly selling at $3.97. Prices also climbed higher in areas of the southeast and eastern U.S., areas which depend on the Colonial Pipeline.
Although Texas state officials insisted that gasoline supplies in the area were adequate, drivers rushed to top off their tanks after the storm passed. The result was “panic mode” — long lines and depleted supplies at some stations.
As of September 1, some analysts were predicting that drivers could also go into panic mode in other areas of the U.S., even if supplies in those areas are sufficient for normal demand.
The environmental ripple effect
Harvey hit a coastal area of Texas with a high population of refineries and petrochemical plants, an unknown number of which have released air pollutants and toxic chemicals before, during and after the storm (some of the releases were planned and reported to EPA as facilities ramped down operations in advance of landfall).
Superfund cleanup sites may be another source of pollution issues. So far EPA has conducted initial assessments at more than 40 Superfund sites in the impacted areas using aerial images and information provided by the site operators. The agency is in the process of conducting on-site inspections.
Harvey’s effect on gasoline supplies also bears with it an environmental consequence far beyond the area of the storm’s impact.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency waived Clean Air Act requirements for motor fuel in Texas, 11 southeastern states and Washington, DC. Under the Clean Air Act, refiners produce a summertime formula for gasoline. Though the refining process is more expensive, the goal is to limit ground-level ozone pollution during the summer months, when warm weather causes gasoline to vaporize.
Ozone can worsen symptoms of asthma and other lung conditions, and it is a health risk for the elderly, babies and children, and persons engaged in exercise or other physical exertion.
Wind farms hold steady
The ripple effects of Harvey on the nation’s petroleum infrastructure will continue for days if not weeks. If and when gas prices settle down, it could still take years to resolve the environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, Texas wind farms recovered quickly.
At least one wind farm located on the “clean” side of the storm’s path was able to operate continuously, earning a shoutout from Bloomberg:
Harvey Pushed This Texas Wind Farm All the Way to the Max
Almost all of the wind farms that did shut down were back also online by August 31. The one exception was the Papalote Creek Wind Farm near Corpus Christie. The wind farm was not damaged but local power lines needed repairs.
The 196-turbine wind farm was up and running by September 1, motivating a cheery headline and lede from the Wall Street Journal…
In Big Test of Wind Farm Durability, Texas Facility Quickly Restarts After Harvey
For the first time in the history of the burgeoning U.S. wind industry, a wind farm got hit by a hurricane—and it was back producing power within days.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Harvey was the first major test of wind turbine durability under hurricane conditions, and it looks like the inland wind farms passed with flying colors.
Offshore wind farms would potentially take a much harder hit, but there are currently no offshore wind farms in the U.S., except for the new Block Island farm off Rhode Island.
Lessons (already) learned
While energy and environmental analysts are still shaking out the numbers, several takeaways are emerging.
One key theme is that the centralized, concentrated nature of the U.S. fuel infrastructure is out of date as global temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more frequent and intense.
In a petroleum-dependent economy, storms like Harvey effect commerce, public health and the environment far beyond the immediate area of impact.
In contrast, wind farms in the area of impact suffered virtually no damage.
Even more to the point, although the local electricity grid was impacted significantly, the ripple effect on the Texas grid was practically unnoticeable.
By August 31, the Houston Chronicle was reporting that more than 800,000 customers in the Houston area lost power at some point during Harvey and its aftermath, and all but 40,000 were restored. Many of those still without power were in areas still impassable due to flooding.
Throughout the storm, ERCOT (the grid manager for almost the entire state) reported that the grid beyond the area of impact was holding steady.
Because of wind farm shutdowns in advance of Harvey, the contribution of wind power to the Texas grid did slip temporarily. Normally wind provides up to 20 percent of the state’s power during daily peak wind hours, and that fell to around 13 percent after Harvey made landfall.
However, the lost capacity did not affect grid stability elsewhere in the state.
It’s true that in the past widespread breakdowns have rippled through the nation’s grid, but a grid modernization initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Energy is making events of that magnitude less likely.
Cyber attacks on grid systems are also a growing concern, but that is an issue shared by any industry with an Internet connection.
The Energy Department foresees that the electricity grid of the future will be rely on diverse, decentralized energy sources and energy storage, including energy storage in the form of renewable hydrogen. Mobile storage capacity — aka electric vehicles — are also playing a growing role in the modern grid.
Disaster organizations, businesses and private citizens — and the U.S. military — are already beginning to turn to renewables and energy storage to ensure power during emergencies rather than relying on diesel generators.
No infrastructure is immune from disaster, but if the focus is on limiting impacts and recovering rapidly, Harvey has underscored the contrast between petroleum dependency and the grid of the future.
Image (screenshot): National Weather Service.