Climate Change Is Threatening the Power Grid

So says the White House, in a new report that recommends strengthening the grid.

This May 20, 2012 photo shows one of the major transmission lines that runs to the west of Albuquerque, N.M. Even as renewable power projects get a boost from the federal government, a lack of transmission prevents sunny states such as New Mexico from converting solar potential into real watts that can charge smartphones and run air conditioners thousands of miles away. 
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Aug. 12, 2013, 8:20 a.m.

Just days away from the 10-year an­niversary of the worst power out­age in U.S. his­tory, the White House and the En­ergy De­part­ment re­leased a re­port on Monday eval­u­at­ing the re­si­li­ency of the na­tion’s elec­tric grid and re­com­mend­ing steps to pre­vent fu­ture black­outs.

The re­port called storms and severe weath­er “the lead­ing cause of power out­ages in the United States,” and warned against the steep cost of weath­er-re­lated dam­age to the elec­tric grid. It put the price tag for elec­tric­al fail­ures caused by in­clement weath­er at between $18 bil­lion and $33 bil­lion an­nu­ally, and noted that costs have in­creased in re­cent years, jump­ing from a range of $14 bil­lion to $26 bil­lion in 2003 to $27 bil­lion to $52 bil­lion in 2012. Storms ex­ceed­ing a bil­lion dol­lars in dam­ages (elec­tric­al and oth­er­wise) have also be­come more fre­quent in the past dec­ade, as the chart be­low shows.

Seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials told re­port­ers dur­ing a con­fer­ence call Monday morn­ing that in­vest­ing in im­prove­ments to the grid is the best way to make sure this fig­ure does not con­tin­ue to rise.

Of­fi­cials said the elec­tric­al dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem, largely made up of power lines, is the most vul­ner­able part of the grid. One in­vest­ment to strengthen the sys­tem, they sug­ges­ted, would be to add auto­mated sensors to pin­point the ex­act loc­a­tion of a power fail­ure. “One of the things we have been work­ing with is to help de­ploy auto­mated switches, which util­it­ies have been able to [use] to min­im­ize the im­pact of out­ages … so what they’ve been able to do is ac­tu­ally isol­ate a fault or where the dam­age is on the sys­tem faster and be able to keep oth­er cus­tom­ers up that nor­mally would have gone down in an out­age,” one offic­al said. 

Ad­min­is­tra­tion offic­als also urged con­tin­ued in­vest­ment in mon­it­or­ing sys­tems to identi­fy areas of the grid most likely to be dam­aged in the event of a storm. 

Ad­di­tion­ally, the re­port poin­ted to a link between cli­mate change and the need for grid mod­ern­iz­a­tion. “It’s clear that cli­mate change is im­pact­ing the grid,” an­oth­er of­fi­cial said. The same offic­al noted that cli­mate change has in­creased the “fre­quency and in­tens­ity” of storms throughout the United States, leav­ing the na­tion’s aging net­work of power gen­er­at­ors, elec­tric plants, and trans­mis­sion lines more sus­cept­ible to dam­age.

The re­lease of the re­port dove­tails neatly with the pres­id­ent’s Cli­mate Ac­tion Plan, which calls for ex­pan­sion and mod­ern­iz­a­tion of the U.S. elec­tric­al grid.

It also fol­lows the En­ergy De­part­ment’s pub­lic­a­tion of a re­port last month show­ing how the U.S. en­ergy sec­tor has be­come in­creas­ingly vul­ner­able to nat­ur­al dis­asters and ex­treme weath­er vari­ab­il­ity due to cli­mate change.

Des­pite its re­com­mend­a­tions, the re­port does not con­sti­tute a fed­er­al man­date. Of­fi­cials noted that it is up to state and loc­al gov­ern­ments as well as privately owned power and util­ity com­pan­ies to help im­ple­ment the guidelines.

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