Hurricane Ida aftermath: Will power grids get an upgrade?

Matt Slocum/AP
Downed power lines slump over a road in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 3, 2021, in Reserve, Louisiana. About a million customers lost power across the state, and some are still without electricity three weeks after the storm.

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When Hurricane Ida knocked out power for about 1 million Louisiana customers, amid sweltering heat and humidity, it was part of a larger pattern. Extreme weather events, which scientists say are being amplified by climate change, have threatened communities and their power grids in other parts of the United States.

The result is an awakening by citizens and policymakers alike that power grids need attention – not just repair, but perhaps re-imagining to withstand future extremes. 

Why We Wrote This

From hurricanes to wildfire risks, extreme conditions are increasingly straining U.S. electric grids. Enhancing resilience will require money – and fresh thinking.

Investments can help harden the grid by reducing potential points of critical failure, putting lines underground where feasible, and adding redundancy.

But all this is costly. And on top of investments in resilience, by some estimates America needs to spend $370 billion or more per decade in new capacity for power distribution, as the nation relies more on renewable power for things like automotive transport. 

“Our energy system is fragile,” says Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas. “In Texas, it costs $5 billion to $20 billion to winterize the energy system," but the move promises to avoid multiples of that amount in damage from storms like one that hit the state early this year. “The cost of inaction,” he says, “is pretty expensive.”

Sweeping through southeastern Louisiana on Aug. 29, Hurricane Ida knocked out power for about 1 million customers – not far off the record seen in this state with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans residents waited for five days in sweltering heat and humidity. Weeks later, the power remains out in parts of some of the hardest-hit communities, such as in LaPlace and Grand Isle. 

And the Bayou State’s struggles fit a larger pattern. Extreme weather events, which scientists say are being amplified by climate change, have threatened communities and their power grids in other parts of the United States.

Why We Wrote This

From hurricanes to wildfire risks, extreme conditions are increasingly straining U.S. electric grids. Enhancing resilience will require money – and fresh thinking.

Some California residents have faced power shut-offs designed to reduce the risk of spark-ignited wildfires. In Texas, more than 4.5 million homes and businesses lost electricity as harsh winter storms in February literally froze up some power sources. Some citizens were left to burn books and newspapers in their homes to keep warm. 

A common thread across these events has been an awakening by citizens and policymakers alike that power grids need attention – not just repair but perhaps re-imagining. Needed changes may include modifying or expanding transmission networks to withstand future extremes, at a time when experts say big investments are also needed as part of a transition toward cleaner energy in response to climate change.

“We need to invest in a modern, updated, resilient grid. Just pursuing whatever's cheapest is what we've done for decades,” says Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas. “I think we’re paying the price for that now.” 

Dr. Webber and other experts see some broad lessons as states in the Gulf Coast region and beyond move forward.

1. Costs are rising. Delay won’t help.

A recent report by the World Meteorological Organization found that in the 1970s, there were only 711 cases of extreme droughts, storms, and heat waves globally. By the 2010s, that number had increased by more than 400%, with at least 3,165 extreme weather events. In that time, the price tag, adjusted with inflation, had also increased from $49 million a day to $383 million a day. 

In 2011 Texas experienced a precursor to this year’s winter storm. A hard freeze caused equipment failures at 241 power plants across Texas, resulting in blackouts for about 4.4 million customers. 

The state Legislature did nothing in the subsequent session to prevent a repeat. 

Cooper Neill/Reuters/File
Christina Beverly and John Shearon light candles in their home after winter weather caused electricity blackouts and boil-water notices in Fort Worth, Texas, Feb. 20, 2021. Their home had not had power since blackouts began across the state on Feb. 14, according to the residents.

“This time, they did something,” Dr. Webber says, including a bill that requires power companies and natural gas companies to upgrade their facilities to withstand extreme weather events. The bill also requires regulators to enact an emergency alert system for power outages. 

Even so, many Texans still saw the state lawmakers’ action as inadequate given the severity of the winter storm crisis earlier this year. 

2. Resilience is a rising priority 

No one expects the ability to make electric transmission lines 100% impervious to storms like Ida, which pummeled Louisiana with winds as high as 150 mph. But experts say infrastructure needs to adapt to changing conditions. 

In some cases, that means power customers taking the issue into their own hands. In Ida’s wake, many homeowners as well as hospitals and some gas stations were able to rely on generators to keep some power available. Some people had solar systems and the ability to store that renewable power in batteries for their personal use. 

In California and elsewhere, so-called microgrids are another rising form of resilience, setting up renewable or other power sources that can often keep operating in “island mode” when larger power networks are impaired or down. 

“The problem with solar in Louisiana is it rains a lot,” says Eric Smith, associate director at Tulane University’s Energy Institute. 

But power-source diversification helps, even if Louisiana may not ever boast nation-leading solar output. And many rooftop panels in the state weathered Ida’s winds successfully. 

Another source of resiliency can be energy-sharing programs between neighboring states, Mr. Smith adds. Texas in particular would have benefited from such a program back in February, when the winter storm hobbled the state as its isolated grid went down. 

“It would have been nice to lean on our neighbors a little more,” Dr. Webber says of the winter storm’s impact on the Lone Star State’s grid. “We didn’t have that option for the most part.” 

Mr. Smith says it would help Louisiana as well as Texas: “It doesn’t make for an efficient grid if you have a winning buyer and a winning seller. You have a robber baron attitude and the state is in the middle. That’s something you ought to be able to fix.” 

3. Don’t expect easy fixes

On Labor Day, Louisiana’s troubles were so bad that electric utility Entergy had deployed 26,000 workers to fix downed lines and bring lights back on for customers across the state. Is there a better way?

Investments can help harden the grid, for sure – such as reducing potential points of critical failure, putting lines underground where feasible, and adding redundancy. But none of these are a guarantee. During Ida, for example, all eight key transmission lines to New Orleans went down.

“We can put the power lines above ground, but they’re more susceptible to damage from wind events and falling trees and flying debris. We can put them underground, and now they can be damaged by water incursion, storm surge, and flooding,” says Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center.  

Sturdier aluminum poles can be used instead of standard pine ones for poles that carry electrical wires and energy for miles. But that adds costs, especially when utilities have responded after storms to replace wooden poles as quickly as they can. 

“You can defend for the next event,” says David Dismukes, executive director of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies. “But now that we’ve literally rebuilt the system in some places, are you going to want to tear that down and make it harder after you’ve already paid top dollar for getting it done now?” 

Still, Dr. Kury says the goal should be to build infrastructure in a way that keeps the response costs low. 

Once an extreme weather event occurs, “most of the job is making sure people get the lights back on,” Dr. Kury says. “But once the storm is through, once that damage has been cleaned up, we still have to be talking about what we can do to make the grid more resilient. That’s when we get change.” 

4. Who pays? Everyone.

The price tag for all this is up for grabs. But utility ratepayers or taxpayers – in other words, all of us – will be footing the bills. 

On top of investments in resilience, by some estimates America needs to spend $370 billion or more per decade in new capacity for power distribution, as the nation relies more on renewable power for things like automotive transport. 

Bills supported by President Joe Biden, if passed by Congress, would pour about $65 billion into power grid upgrades (an infrastructure bill) and commit another $150 billion to a transition toward 80% renewable energy (a broader spending bill).

States including Texas and Louisiana will be watching closely. 

“Our energy system is fragile,” Dr. Webber says. “In Texas, it costs $5 billion to $20 billion to winterize the energy system. That sounds expensive, but it helps avoid $100 billion to $200 billion in damage” from a storm like the one that happened early this year. 

“The cost of inaction,” he says, “is pretty expensive.”

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