The city of New Orleans has a spiffy (and controversial) new gas-fired generating station designed to keep it powered up regardless of what Mother Nature throws at it. But Mother Nature often has different ideas. While that new facility was ready, willing, and able to keep power flowing, Hurricane Ida totally dismantled the electrical grid, leaving no way for electricity to flow to customers.
According to the Associated Press, as of August 31, 216 substations, 207 transmission lines, and more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines in and around the city were out of service. There are 8 high voltage transmission lines that bring power to New Orleans from the rest of the country. All of them failed during the storm, including one that fell into the Mississippi River after a tower collapsed.
Cell phone service is out in many parts of the city. Drinking water and sewer operations are dependent on backup generators. City officials are advising residents who fled the storm not to return, saying it may be weeks or even months before power is restored.
Focus On Resiliency
What is occurring in New Orleans this week is happening all across America more and more frequently as blazing heat, bitter cold, strong winds, and flooding batter the country from sea to shining sea. All of them are a direct and proximate result of a steadily warming planet. According to the New York Times, energy companies and regulators have not done enough to harden transmission lines and power plants to withstand extreme temperatures and winds.
“Generally speaking, you’re never going to be able to construct a system that can withstand absolutely any natural disaster,” Larry Gasteiger tells the Times. He is the executive director of Wires, a trade association that represents utilities that build and operate high-voltage transmission lines. “But it speaks to the need for building out a more resilient system.”
The aftermath of Ida may spur Congress to finally get around to passing the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill that has been pending since July. “These are lessons we have to learn over and over again,″ Shelley Welton, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies climate change and energy law, tells AP. Whether it’s a deadly freeze in Texas, a wildfire in California, or a hurricane in Louisiana, “the connective thread is we need to build infrastructure to better withstand stronger storms that we know are coming″ as a consequence of climate change, she says.
Some Republicans are now on board with the push for greater grid resiliency. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy told CNBC on Monday the aftermath of Ida is just the latest example of why his state and the rest of the nation need the infrastructure bill to pass. “New Orleans is now a case in point. If we’re going to make our country more resilient to natural disasters, whatever they are, we have to start preparing now. We can’t look in the rearview mirror and say, ‘Well I wish we were prepared.’ We’ve got to start now for next year’s hurricane, next year’s wildfire, next year’s tornado. That infrastructure package is part of that.″
Transmission Lines Versus Local Renewable Energy
That package includes $60 billion to upgrade the electric grid and build thousands of miles of transmission lines to expand use of renewable energy. That may be a good thing, but it may also ignore the benefits of generating clean, emissions-free electricity at the local level. Some activists in New Orleans want officials to put a priority on investments in rooftop solar, batteries, and microgrids which can power homes and commercial buildings even when the larger grid goes down.
“We keep walking by the solutions to keep people safe in their homes,” Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, tells the New York Times. “When these events happen, then we’re in crisis mode because instead we’re spending billions of dollars every year now to rebuild the same system that leaves people in the dark, in a dire situation.”
The experience of Puerto Rico could serve as an example of how over dependence on transmission lines can lead to systemic failure. Nearly 4 years later, many parts of the island are still struggling with intermittent access to electricity due to an archaic and poorly maintained transmission system.
Some utilities have tried burying transmission lines to protect them from strong winds and storms, but Larry Gasteiger says doing so is expensive and comes with its own set of problems. “Generally speaking, it’s not that the utilities are not willing to do it, it’s that people aren’t willing to pay for it. Usually it’s a cost issue. And undergrounding can make it more difficult to locate and fix problems.”
Rooftop solar systems are not impervious to high winds, especially as storms get stronger as the planet heats up. Just as long distance power lines can fail, so can short run power lines, especially as local utility poles are toppled by wind and wires breached by falling branches. Wind farms are usually located outside population centers and rely on transmission lines to distribute the power they generate. Making a more resilient grid is a challenging and difficult proposition, one that can be costly as well.
The fiasco in Texas last winter was largely created by regulators and politicians who opted for cheap rather than durable. There are economic justice considerations as well. Low income people may not be able to afford the higher utility bills that come with more robust infrastructure, putting society in the position of creating haves and have nots when it comes to access to electricity.
Hardening Leads To Hard Choices
EFLA is a consortium of consulting engineers located in Iceland which specialize in creating infrastructure that can withstand harsh environments. One of its projects is the Labrador Island Transmission Link, an 1100-kilometer long high voltage transmission line that supplies power to Newfoundland. In an email to CleanTechnica, a spokesperson for the company says the technology needed to construct that link could help make transmission links in hurricane prone areas like New Orleans more resilient — assuming there is money available for such upgrades.
The Biden administration envisions spending billions to harden transmission lines and while that is a good thing, it does not address the advantages of local renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind, and solar power. Clearly, the path forward should include a mix of all available solutions.
It is said that covering a small portion — 10,000 square kilometers — of the Sahara Desert could produce all the electricity the world needs on a daily basis. To put that in perspective, the Sahara covers 8,600,000 square kilometers. While that claim may be theoretically true, the issue is how to export that energy from North Africa to the rest of the world reliably, safely, securely, and affordably.
The bottom line is that humans have made access to abundant electrical energy the cornerstone of their existence. Most of the responses to an overheating planet depend entirely on electricity to make them feasible. The issue is not so much whether people should be so reliant on electricity as it is how they will protect themselves from environmental extremes when electricity is not available.
We are at the point where the absence of electricity can mean death for many of our fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth. Mother Nature is not waiting around for us to find the answers to these questions. Being reactive rather than proactive about energy security is going to get a lot of people killed.