Hurricane Irene and its Impact on Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power

This is the first in a three part series of blogs examining how natural disasters like hurricanes impact our energy generation.

Traditional energy resources (nuclear, coal, oil and natural gas) appeared to earn passing grades for how they weathered Hurricane Irene this past week. In fact, coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear proponents tried to put a positive spin on just how well these traditional energy resources weathered the first major hurricane to strike the U.S. this 2011 season. One article went so far as to say “Coal is keeping people alive…Oil keeps people alive…“ But how did those traditional energy resources actually fare during the storm and its aftermath?

How did our energy supply fare Irene?

How did our energy supply weather Irene?

Nuclear reactors require long lead times to either power down or ride through storms. Amid the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami that struck in March, concern for the United States’ nuclear fleet has been at an all-time-high. A rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Mid-Atlantic region the week before Hurricane Irene and caused two nuclear reactors to shut down in Virginia – causing even more scrutiny on America’s nuclear fleet.

In total, Irene posed a threat to ten nuclear power plants. One nuclear power plant was shut down manually as a precaution before Irene arrived – the Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey. Another reactor, the Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland, shut down automatically (not intentionally) when a piece of debris hit a transformer. Two other reactors that had been affected by the earthquake earlier in the week remained closed through the storm in Virginia. Several other nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity.

Nuclear reactors, like coal-fired power plants, cannot be turned off at the flip of a switch. Much planning must be done before a nuclear reactor can be placed into hibernation mode. As such, one company noted that its nuclear reactor “…would begin shutting down if winds in excess of 100 mph are within 320 miles of the plant…” Restarting a nuclear reactor similarly takes a fair amount of time since both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency must approve a restart.

Hurricanes threaten infrastructure for coal and natural gas generation. There are fewer reports of the impacts to coal and natural gas power plants from Irene. However, the infrastructure supporting coal and natural gas was impacted. For coal, railroads are the lifeblood of the industry. Although coal-fired power plants typically maintain some amount of coal on-site in case of a minor railroad disruption, continued access to rail lines is necessary to constantly restock supplies of coal. One railroad company in Virginia halted coal exports during Irene as a safety precaution prior to the storm. The Hampton Roads Port in Virginia had to close because Irene shifted navigational buoys, and there was concern the harbor seafloor’s depth had changed due to shoaling. Last year, shoaling caused a coal tanker to run aground.

Natural gas consumption was impacted by Irene, as well. Instead of causing price spikes in natural gas, a common occurrence when a hurricane threatens the United States, Irene actually caused natural gas prices to slightly decline. As linemen rushed to restore downed powerlines along the East Coast, electric generation was halted at natural gas power plants in the region. As a result, natural gas demand dropped by 2 billion cubic feet due to Irene’s impact on the region’s electricity grid.

Oil refineries were closed due to Irene. The media’s attention was similarly lower concerning Irene’s impacts to oil refining. When extreme or dangerous weather enters into the Gulf of Mexico, many news outlets focus on the impacts to oil and natural gas production. For example, the impacts to the oil and natural gas industries after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana (2005) and Hurricanes Ike and Gustav hit Texas (2008) were heavily covered and investigated by the media and governmental sources. During Irene, the impacts to oil refining were much less severe, but still apparent nevertheless. Similar to the nuclear industry, several refineries on the East Coast were closed early in preparation for Irene. Refineries closed in New Jersey and terminals were shut in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia. Others operated at reduced capacity and a few successfully weathered the storm.

No energy resource is completely secure, but renewable resources are safer. Thankfully, Irene was a relatively weak storm – a Category 1 Hurricane – when it made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Even in its weakened state, Irene caused impacts to nuclear, coal, natural gas and oil production or consumption. It should be noted that no source of electricity generation is completely secure from the impacts of mother nature. It would be folly to presume (not to mention extremely expensive or logistically impossible to develop) there is an energy supply capable of surviving any natural disaster. In the future, category 5 Hurricanes will strike our coasts, EF5 tornadoes will destroy communities, magnitude 9 earthquakes will happen, lightning will strike, meteors will fall from the sky – and power plants, refineries and rigs will fail, regardless of fuel type (coal, natural gas, nuclear or even wind energy). When it comes to disasters, however, the difference between renewable energy and other energy sources is that when a wind turbine is stopped (or in the worst-case scenario falls down), there is no risk that necessitates the evacuation of an entire community or region. With the coal-ash spill in 2008, residents in Tennessee were evacuated. Around 1,000 people were evacuated earlier this week after a natural gas pipeline exploded in New Mexico. Many thousands of people have still not been allowed to safely return to their homes in Japan surrounding the Fukushima disaster. Wind energy is safer than fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

But specifically, how do wind turbines fare in bad weather? For that, please be sure to catch our next blogs in this series – How Wind Farms Weather Hurricanes and Hurricane Irene’s Impact on Wind Turbines – early next week.

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