We’re barreling full force into the heart of hurricane season. The peak is usually mid-August to early October. Yet during the past 10 years, the biggest, costliest storms have hit in September. Superstorm Sandy was an exception with a late arrival in October. Climate change is turning up the volume on storms: Last year was the ninth year in a row that the U.S. endured eight billion-dollar disasters and the fifth consecutive year with at least 10 billion-dollar extreme weather events in total.
The climate change horse is already out of the barn. Now is time to adapt to these potentially devastating impacts and figure out how to make our energy systems more resilient. Critical infrastructure across the country is vulnerable to climate change risks, but nowhere more so than coastal areas.
So, what exactly does it mean to make our energy infrastructure more resilient?
A success story about resilience after a chaotic hurricane season
Similar to the wildfire situation in California, microgrids, smart grids, renewable energy, and storage systems can help make energy systems more resilient. Communities are less dependent on vulnerable transmission lines and central power stations, and the technologies are less carbon-intensive to boot. We already have the evidence that these investments make sense.
A 2017 report by CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s investor-owned electric utility, sheds light on how investments in smart sensors, controls, and communications systems allowed the company to improve customer service and reduce the impact of outages. These systems have led to better power-outage tracking and customer notifications, and the intelligent switches installed across CenterPoint’s grid allowed it to avoid nearly 41 million minutes of customer outages during Hurricane Harvey.
In addition, just about every one of Centerpoint’s customers has a smart meter, which not only enhances the visibility of the electric grid, but also has resulted in 15,000 tons of avoided carbon pollution since 2009.
Why renewables are an asset during hurricane season
Wind turbines are typically built to withstand winds up to 55 miles per hour. Harvey had winds nearly double that speed, yet some equipment was able to continue to generate power and function reliably. However, sometimes turbines could not generate power as the local electric grid went down and there was nothing available to which they could connect. In other areas, the equipment had to be shut down because of extreme wind speeds. Although this does not take into account how other types of electricity generation performed, it highlights important considerations that should be included when planning grid improvements.
Customer-centered distributed solar panels can also be helpful in extreme weather. Studies done since the 2017 hurricane season found that panels, if installed correctly, could withstand winds up to 185 miles per hour. Basically, if your roof survives the storm, chances are your panels will too. Further, panels can provide power while the grid is offline. After Harvey hit Texas, there was a nearly 700 percent traffic spike to an article about whether solar panels could withstand hurricanes.
A wake-up call for energy companies and utilities
The installed smart technology alone was not able to prevent all outages during Harvey or any of the other storms that have battered coasts from Puerto Rico and New York to Texas in recent years. Many power substations have flooded, and crews are not always able to immediately travel and contain disruptions.
As we now stare down the barrel of two hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico with likely more on the way before this hurricane season is over, the decisions about how to strengthen our energy infrastructure are more important than ever. Since 2017, we have seen three Category 4 hurricanes and four Category 5 hurricanes. Some of these storms have been so catastrophic there have been calls to add a Category 6.
The energy and utility industries must engage with policymakers. The choice between minimizing costs and building more resilient energy infrastructure is a false one if the longer-term costs are considered. Resilience must be baked into energy developers’ specifications, and industry-wide guidelines for resilience should be instituted. Utility planners must take a more holistic approach to what resilience means and how to weave it into forecasts. It also means utilities in Texas and many other states need to incorporate robust climate modeling into their plans, regardless of the politics.
And finally, efforts must be made by all decision-makers to ensure that distributed energy is available and affordable. Communities of color and low-income communities bear the brunt of the impacts of hurricanes and have access to the fewest resources for recovery. Ensuring that people in those communities also have access to reliable, resilient energy should be a cornerstone of any resilience strategy.
Image credit: Shashank Sahay/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.