After Hurricane Ida devastated New Orleans and most of southern Louisiana last week, we did an article about ways to make the electrical grid more resilient. One idea is to bury transmission lines underground to protect them from high winds, but that plan has some drawbacks associated with it. First, underground wires are hard to access if there is a problem. Second, they are subject to overheating and flooding. In coastal areas, salt water can wreak havoc on underground distribution systems. While buried power lines are insulated from wind, ice, and tree damage, they aren’t completely weatherproof, industry experts say. When Hurricane Irma hit Florida, 18% of underground power lines experienced an outage.
At the Electric Power Research Institute, a think tank for the private energy sector, researchers are busy designing future grid infrastructure that fails in a controlled fashion, making repairs easier and faster to accomplish. “You design structures that are self-sacrificing,” Andrew Phillips, vice president of transmission and distribution infrastructure at EPRI, tells the Washington Post. “They fail, but they fail in a place you want them to fail.”
The idea is to create techniques that will make distribution systems resilient rather than immune to extreme weather. It may not be possible to prevent a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds from toppling a 400-foot transmission tower into the Mississippi River as Ida did in New Orleans, but it may be possible to get the grid back up quickly after such a crippling weather event. “There’s nothing you can do to completely protect the grid from damage. Anything you do, you’re left with vulnerabilities,” says Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida. Success, he says, comes from swiftly restoring power, since preventing outages from happening is nearly impossible.
Repairing downed power poles is the most time-consuming fix after a natural disaster, energy analysts say. One possible solution is to allow cables to drop at the first sign of trouble, which prevents a domino effect where a tree falls on a line, topples a nearby pole and then multiple poles are dragged down as the power line continues to collapse. Designing the line to fail at controlled points would minimize the force pulling on the pole and perhaps keep the first one from toppling over. “Now, instead of taking 36 hours to fix a pole, it can take you two or three hours,” EPRI’s Phillips says.
Florida Power & Light was one of the first utilities to pursue this new technology. After Hurricane Wilma battered South Florida in 2005, it began updating its system to include concrete support beams for power lines, underground wires, automated power switches, and other intelligent devices. When Hurricane Irma struck the area in 2017, power was restored to customers within days as opposed to the weeks needed after Wilma.
Another solution sweeping the country recently is so-called smart metering systems — electronic devices that report energy consumption to suppliers and customers in real time. That allows service providers to pinpoint the source of an outage as it happens. Before smart meters, operators learned of outages through customer phone calls or inspection crews, which meant that small interruptions could grow large before a provider was aware. Microgrids, usually comprised of ground-mounted or rooftop solar systems, can generate power locally even when cut off from the electrical grid. They can keep fire stations and hospitals powered during prolonged electricity outages.
The Issue Is Cost — And Politics
The main reason why more utilities don’t have resilient grid infrastructure is cost. The deep freeze that paralyzed Texas earlier this year led to many equipment failures. Gas-fired generating stations failed to power up, partly because the diesel-powered pumps that operate natural gas pipelines refused to start in the unprecedented cold. Wind turbines that were not winterized also failed. ERCOT, the grid operator for Texas, has focused primarily on finding the cheapest rather than the best way to make sure Texans get the electricity they need. But it’s not all ERCOT’s fault. The state’s political leaders have forbidden it to interconnect with regional grids in order to limit the effect of federal regulations.
A typical overhead power line costs about $100,000 per mile to string; placing that cable underground can cost more than 10 times as much. Updating electricity infrastructure is a big undertaking that requires a balancing act involving innovation, costs, and public interest, experts say. Wealthy cities and neighborhoods can pay to hide unsightly power lines underground, but statewide efforts are tougher to accomplish.
After a 2002 snowstorm rocked North Carolina and left 2 million homes without electricity, the state studied how much it would cost to run lines underground. A task force determined it would take 25 years to build and cost $41 billion. That would have meant doubling people’s electricity bills, so the state decided not to push forward.
“Once you realize a solution is possible, it’s just the first step in a long road toward making it happen,” says Richard Sedano, CEO at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit focused on clean energy. “Everybody’s ‘best grid’ is going to look different,” Ted Kury says. “If you’re in an area prone to flooding, a policy putting everything underground doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The Infrastructure Bill
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill currently pending in Congress would provide money to improve grid resiliency in communities across America. The budget reconciliation bill to follow would provide a whole lot more. Whether either of them makes it across the finish line is still up in the air, however. The bottom line is that making sure everyone has access to electricity all the time in spite of rampaging forest fires and more powerful storms is a virtual impossibility. Incorporating new technologies that allow grid infrastructure to fail in a controlled fashion so they can be rebuilt quickly is a tool that should be included in the arsenal of weapons available to utility companies and local communities.
Access to electricity will be essential to people suffering from the ravages of an overheated planet. Some will say we cannot afford the cost of more resilient grids, and 100 years ago, when people still relied on hand pumps for water, that might have been true. But today, coping with daytime temperatures that are up to 20 degrees F hotter than normal means that argument is no longer valid. The truth is, we need an electrical grid that can take the worst punishment Mother Nature is capable of dishing out.
Trying to cheap out as we move further into the unknowns of a warming planet is a false economy. My old Irish grandmother would say it is being penny wise and pound foolish. We can and must do better.
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