The full impact of Hurricane Harvey has barely settled into the nation’s consciousness, and it has already been overshadowed by Hurricane Irma. That’s partly because Irma has impacted the fuel and electricity infrastructure over a much broader area than Harvey, engulfing practically the entire state of Florida with winds of damaging force and multiple areas of flooding.
Large swaths of the energy infrastructure in Florida will have to be reconstructed, practically from scratch. The question now is whether or not state policymakers will seize the opportunity to adopt 21st century technology, or simply rebuild along the same conventional models that have served the nation relatively well for the past 100 years or so.
After Irma: gasoline shortages and the electric vehicle question
To be clear, electric vehicles would not have alleviated the massive traffic jams that prevented many from fleeing out of Irma’s path when evacuations were ordered.
In the context of today’s central power generation model, electric vehicles would also succumb to the fueling problem wherever power lines are damaged and power plants are incapacitated.
Laura Bliss of CityLab (an Atlantic Monthly publication) has a detailed rundown of the gasoline situation in Florida, and she also notes that electric cars are not necessarily a better alternative when mass evacuations are ordered. Bliss suggests that buses may be the most effective evacuation solution.
As for recovery in the aftermath of Irma, a distributed power generation model would give electric vehicles an edge, but that would depend on the extent of damage to individual solar or wind installations, and the pace of repair work. Rooftop solar, for example, would not be of much help in the aftermath of a storm that destroys an entire house.
With that in mind, let’s look at the availability of conventional gasoline fuel in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma:
Bliss sets the table:
In Gainesville, some 45 percent of gas stations are running dry as of Wednesday. In West Palm Beach, it’s 50 percent. And the price of gas has jumped nearly 30 cents on average—and that’s without the widespread price gouging that plagued Florida this past weekend.
These are the tough realities Floridians who evacuated in the face of Hurricane Irma last week even as they begin to return home. An unprecedented six million fled from the Category 5 storm, the largest evacuation in U.S. history.
Bliss explores the question of why Florida’s gasoline infrastructure was stretched so thin before, during and after Irma.
The chief factor was time. Much of Florida’s gasoline is shipped from Texas refineries, and many of those were impacted by Harvey. In addition, at least one Florida supplier cited by Bliss was diverting supplies from storage over to Texas, to help alleviate fuel shortages there in the aftermath of Harvey.
In advance of Irma, Florida officials scrambled with fuel industry stakeholders to build up supplies, with fuel coming from as far away as Europe. However, the evacuation orders motivated a surge in demand that overwhelmed capacity.
Bliss also notes that even without illegal price gouging, the retail price of gasoline tends to shoot up in shortage situations in tandem with increases in wholesale prices.
In sum, mass ownership of electric vehicles may not prevent traffic jams in a large scale evacuation, but distributed power generation — combined with energy storage — could provide EV owners with more opportunities to fuel up in the aftermath of a storm and get recovery under way more quickly.
The vulnerability of central power plants
With the EV question in mind, the availability of electricity in the aftermath of a storm takes on increased urgency.
Jeff St. John of GreenTech Media provides a rundown of Irma’s destructive path, citing more than 6.1 million utility customers still without power in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as of earlier this week.
Though more than 50,000 utility workers were brought in to help out local crews, access to power lines has been hampered by downed trees, flooding and storm surges.
Parts of the grid were damaged so severely that industry officials foresee that the restoration process that could take weeks if not months in some areas.
As described by St. John, Irma also exposed shortcomings in the grid hardening plans that utilities have been developing over the past several years. Florida Power & Light is one example:
FPL, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, has been preparing for future storms as part of its $3 billion grid infrastructure investment program, which included more concrete poles to replace wooden ones, flood monitoring for low-lying substations, and smart meters that can, among other things, report outages. But…Hurricane Irma brought winds that could “snap a concrete pole” and overwhelm flood protections for underground distribution systems.
CEO Eric Silagy as much as admitted that the conventional grid model is outdated, regardless of how hardened it is:
“We have the strongest, most highly engineered, smartest grid in the U.S., but there is no way to engineer against a storm of this kind of magnitude,” he said.
Trump Administration touts the solar solution — no, really
More likely than not, Florida utilities will carry out their existing grid-hardening plans, perhaps with some modifications, in the interests of restoring power to millions of people as soon as possible.
In the long run, though, both Irma and Harvey will motivate utilities and their customers to take a closer look at renewable energy, distributed power generation and energy storage options that could be up and running quickly in the aftermath of a hurricane or other severe event.
Energy storage in the form of hydrogen for fuel cells could also play an increased role in the sustainable grid of the future.
Interestingly, this week the Energy Department dropped a not-so-subtle hint about the direction in which the Trump Administration would like to see utilities go in Florida and elsewhere.
In a splashy announcement timed with the Solar Power International converence in Las Vegas, the Energy Department released word that President Obama’s 2020 “SunShot” goal for reducing the cost of utility-scale solar has been achieved three years ahead of schedule — and that the agency will now focus more attention on grid resiliency and renewable energy integration.
Trump appointee Daniel Simmons, who is the Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, made the announcement. Simmons came to the Energy Department from the fossil fuel industry but he seems to have adjusted his thinking:
“With the impressive decline in solar prices, it is time to address additional emerging challenges…As we look to the future, DOE will focus new solar R&D on the Secretary’s priorities, which include strengthening the reliability and resilience of the electric grid while integrating solar energy.”
Considering Trump’s history of unfamiliarity with the details of his own policies, it’s not clear that the president is actually aware that his administration has just made a full on commitment to integrating more renewables into the nation’s grid. However, that is in fact the policy that the Energy Department has been pursuing ever since Trump tapped noted wind energy fan and former Texas governor Rick Perry to head up the Energy Department.
Though emergency repairs in Florida and elsewhere may follow conventional lines in the short term, it’s a safe bet that Perry will leverage Irma and Harvey to push grid reconstruction in a more sustainable direction over the long run.*
Image (cropped): NASA via US Department of Energy.
*Readers please note: Perry has been a steadfast champion of renewables as Energy Secretary despite Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric, but his legacy of anti-women policymaking continues to take a toll on women’s health in Texas.