New Report: Power Infrastructure Faces Increased Vulnerability From Climate Change

A report released earlier this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists examines the vulnerability of electricity infrastructure as global warming increases the likelihood of extreme flooding. The report, titled Lights Out: Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help, specifically looks at how many power plants and substations in five key metropolitan regions along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts would be underwater with various flood scenarios and discusses the impacts of resulting power outages that could occur.

Numerous examples of the widespread impacts of power outages from extreme floods can be found in recent years, such as with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the extensive recent flooding in South Carolina. Reliable electricity has become a necessity in modern life, such that when the power goes out we risk losing many of our basic support systems including drinking water, the ability to heat homes in cold weather, critical emergency facilities such as hospitals, communication capabilities such as phone and Internet, the ability to engage in commerce by losing ATM and credit card capabilities, and many more.

Global warming increases these flood risks in at least three ways: firstly by increasing the intensity of rain events, so that more rain is dropped in shorter periods of time; secondly by increasing the strength of hurricanes; and thirdly by raising the sea level, hindering drainage of coastal areas and elevating storm surge by that much more. With extreme weather events intensifying and sea levels rising, coastal flooding is becoming more frequent and severe, exposing more coastal infrastructure to flood threats.

Electrical disruptions have increased over the past two decades, largely due to extreme weather. Source: Lights Out.

Correspondingly, weather-related power outages have increased in frequency over the last two decades. Flooding can disrupt power in a number of ways, but of primary importance are power plants and substations, which can suffer catastrophic failure, followed by hours or weeks of repairs before power is restored. Meanwhile, complete replacement of substations can take more than a year and cost millions of dollars.

Therefore, Lights Out models the projected extent of coastal flooding and inundation of large substations and power plants in five major metropolitan regions–the Delaware Valley, southeastern Virginia, the South Carolina Lowcountry, southeastern Florida, and New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast –using a moderate, localized sea level rise scenario for 2030, 2050, and 2070.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Electricity infrastructure in all five regions already displays significant exposure to storm surge from major storms today. For example, the report found the share of exposed substations ranged from 16 percent in southeastern Florida to nearly 70 percent in the central Gulf Coast.
  • While the electric grid has built-in redundancies that allow power to be routed around a few damaged generators or major substations, power loss becomes widespread once more than a handful of such key elements are knocked offline. In all regions examined, there was evidence of the potential for such widespread losses if electricity infrastructure is unprotected, as floodwater depths often reach 5 to 10 feet, and even 10 to 15 feet, at exposed sites.
Table of exposed power plants and substations in South Carolina, South Florida, and the Gulf Coast, today, in 2030, 2050, and 2070.

Table of exposed power plants and substations in South Carolina, South Florida, and the Gulf Coast, today, in 2030, 2050, and 2070.

  • As sea level rise continues to push flood levels higher, the depth of flooding will worsen, and storm surge could extend farther than it does today. For example, in southeastern Florida the number of major substations exposed to flooding from a Category 3 storm could more than double by 2050 and triple by 2070, while in the Delaware Valley, the number of substations facing floodwater depths of 10 to 15 feet or more grows by 15 between now and 2070.

Solutions

While our power system’s infrastructure grows increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts, there are numerous solutions within reach. Of primary importance, we must cut pollution that causes global warming in the first place. Using more distributed clean energy resources such as solar, wind and energy efficiency, accomplishes both mitigating the underlying cause of climate change impacts, while at the same time adapting to the impacts. As Lights Out states, “A resilient power system is flexible, responds to challenges, enables quick recoveries, and is available when we need it most. Developing resilient power resources means shifting away from relying on a centralized grid to a more decentralized system designed to meet essential grid loads, even during extreme weather events. Most importantly, a resilient approach that places efficient and clean energy technologies at the core of its solutions helps our communities prepare for a climate-impacted future while also reducing the emissions that are driving those effects.

The Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm was up and running within days of Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy Sjrooney102.

Take for example the case of the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm in Atlantic City, New Jersey. While Hurricane Sandy brought down the grid in some places for a couple weeks, the Jersey Atlantic Wind Farm was back up and running within three days of the storm. Combining resilient distributed generation resources with microgrid technologies that can “island” an area can help ensure power is available for critical uses even when the grid is down in the wake of a big storm. Furthermore, with the progress currently being made in energy storage solutions, such as Tesla’s new battery system, distributed renewable energy can help make our communities increasingly resilient to natural disasters.

Lights Out further details a suite of potential solutions, including adaptive strategies such as elevating key pieces of infrastructure and policy opportunities to build increased resilience into our power system.

In sum, the report concludes

Our power grid is susceptible to coastal flooding today. Rising seas and higher storm surge mean that unless we take purposeful action to adapt to worsening conditions, the electric power sector will become even more vulnerable to crippling outages over time. With our safety, health, and daily lives tightly intertwined with reliable electricity, it has become increasingly critical that we limit the risk of such impacts. We must, therefore, apply foresight to long-term planning for the power grid; encourage the purposeful adoption of distributed clean energy solutions that bolster the electricity resilience of our communities to help them cope with unavoidable future disasters; and pursue electricity generation policies that prioritize clean energy to limit the scope of future climate impacts.

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You can read the full report here.

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