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Lights Out? Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, November 2nd, 2015


Executive Summary

As global warming pushes sea levels higher, the risk of coastal flooding from storm surge grows, posing a serious and worsening threat to electricity infrastructure along the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts. A large share of the major substations and power plants that provide electricity to more than 70 million coastal residents is already exposed to flooding from hurricanes, nor’easters, or other severe storms. Even more electricity infrastructure stands to be exposed, and to increasing floodwater depths, as seas continue to rise and drive storm surge higher.

Flood mapping of five major metropolitan regions along the East and Gulf Coasts conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that if critical components of the electric grid are insufficiently protected, they risk inundation and the flood damage and failure that can ensue. The result can be widespread and long-lasting power outages.

To maintain the level of electricity reliability on which our safety, health, and daily lives depend, regulators and utilities evaluating threats to the electric grid must stop relying on historical data that greatly underestimate the risk of current and future flooding. At the same time, our states, towns, and cities should push for widespread deployment of resilient clean energy solutions that not only protect our communities when the centralized grid goes down, but also lower the electricity sector’s global warming emissions, which will help limit longer-term sea level rise and other climate impacts.

The Steep Cost of Prolonged Outages

For communities hit by severe coastal storms, the devastation does not end when the skies clear and the floodwaters retreat. Because of outdated flooding assumptions and deteriorating electricity infrastructure, millions of citizens can emerge from being pounded by wind, waves, and water to find that the power is out—and stays out for days or even weeks.

The effects of such outages can be devastating. As arrestingly demonstrated by recent storms like hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), lack of electricity following severe weather events can be another and separate disaster, triggering urgent patient evacuations from darkened hospitals, millions of gallons of raw sewage flowing into local waterways as treatment plants go dark, and hours-long lines at the few area service stations able to keep pumps running. Widespread post-storm outages can also cause major impacts closer to home, such as the loss of drinking water pumped from wells and throughout high-rise buildings, the inability to use ATMs or credit cards, and the failure of cell phone and Internet communications. Some populations—including the elderly, those with disabilities, and those with low income—are particularly challenged by power outages, and struggle to cope with their impacts.

Faltering Electricity Infrastructure

Power outages can occur because of damage to any part of the electricity system: the thousands of power plants generating electricity, the tens of thousands of substations enabling long-distance power transmission, and the millions of miles of transmission and distribution lines delivering electricity to our homes, businesses, and institutions. But despite our increasing reliance on electricity, our nationwide power grid is increasingly susceptible to failure due to old age and poor condition, and the rate of outages from severe weather has been rising.

With nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population living in counties along the East and Gulf Coasts, there is necessarily a large concentration of energy infrastructure built up in coastal areas. Inundation, or flooding of normally dry land, is the most direct hazard to these electric grid components. This type of flooding is typically associated with storm surge, where seawater presses far inland— sometimes at heights of 10 to 20 feet or more above typical high tide—due to strong winds. Because storm surge severity is determined by local geography, size and path of storm, and other factors, even an otherwise non-major storm system can produce severe surge. Submerged equipment can suffer catastrophic failure, and repairs—when possible—can be laborious and lengthy. But the alternative can be far worse: complete replacement of substations can take more than a year and cost millions of dollars.

Many cities and towns along the East and Gulf Coasts have begun to confront the impacts of climate change now that high tides are routinely overtopping seawalls or backing up storm drains and causing nuisance flooding. Flooding precipitated by high tides alone are a harbinger of disruptive change to come; storm surges rolling in atop rising seas present increasingly grave concerns for coastal infrastructure.

Clean Energy: A Pathway to Resilient Power and Reduced Emissions

To maintain our present and future access to reliable electricity—and all the health, safety, and economic benefits such access allows—we must prepare our electric grid for increased coastal flooding. One necessary approach is adapting electricity infrastructure. However, it is also critical to simultaneously pursue solutions that go beyond intervening with specific pieces of equipment. For that, we can look to bolstering the overall electricity resilience of critical facilities and vulnerable populations.

Resilient power offers a system that is flexible, can respond to challenges, can quickly recover, and remains available when we need it most. Developing resilient power means shifting away from a centralized electricity system to a more decentralized one designed to meet critical needs even during extreme weather. When the power goes out, hospitals, water and wastewater treatment plants, community shelters, fire and police departments, and other critical facilities typically rely on backup diesel generators until the main electric grid can be restored. Backup diesel generators themselves, however, present a host of reliability and implementation challenges, including being prone to failure due to infrequent use.

Given the vital nature of the services provided by our critical facilities, the intrinsic flaws of the backup systems on which they rely, and the continued likelihood of power outages due to rising seas, it is essential for policy makers and utilities to look beyond current practices to create a more resilient power system. Clean energy technologies have the potential to be an important part of the solution, exceling where diesel generators and the centralized grid have struggled. Foremost among such solutions are:

  • Renewable energy with energy storage. When coupled with storage systems such as batteries, renewable resources with variable output like solar and wind power are able to provide energy to users even when the sun sets, the wind stops blowing, or the centralized grid goes dark. In New Jersey, a multimillion-dollar initiative is under way to fund energy storage projects that support renewable energy systems at critical facilities.
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) plants. CHP, also called cogeneration, produces electricity and captures thermal energy from a single fuel source; this dual-use approach can greatly increase fuel efficiency while independently supplying heat as well as power to critical facilities. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the CHP system at the Water Pollution Control Facility in Little Ferry, NJ, kept running, so the treatment facility— unlike many of its counterparts—did not need to dump raw or partially treated sewage into area waterways.
  • Microgrids. These can be self-contained, self-sustaining systems that generate and consume all the energy within a compact geographical “island;” alternatively, they can be interconnected with the broader electric grid and choose when to shift into island mode. During major outages, microgrids can turn into bright beacons of electricity amid widespread darkness. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources is currently hosting a $40 million, multi-year initiative to support municipal resilience with measures including microgrids. 

FIGURE 1. U.S. Electric Grid Disruptions

Download full version (PDF): Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help

About the Union of Concerned Scientists
Through our Science Network, we collaborate with nearly 17,000 scientists and technical experts across the country, including: physicists, ecologists, engineers, public health professionals, economists, and energy analysts. We are also a leader in science communication, helping experts explain their research more effectively and working to improve the public’s understanding of science.

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One Response to “Lights Out? Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help”

  1. jerry schneider says:

    I am surprised to see no mention of cyber attacks on our three main interconnected grids. The recent book by Ted Kopple called :Lights Out” provides much information on this subject.

    It’s not a matter of IF, only a matter of WHEN, according to people with considerable knowledge on this subject. The damage would be very substantial and take much time and huge amounts of money to recover. More likely to occur long before the kinds of sea level rise that is discussed in this report.

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