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In Florida and Texas, Keeping the Lights on Means Planning for Change

26 Sep 2017, 10:32 am

[Downed power lines in Georgia following Hurricane Irma. Photo: City of Concord NC]

Due to damage from Hurricane Irmathe lights were out in much of Florida—an inconvenience to many and fatal to some. Meanwhile, in Texas, power restoration has been an issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As the Wall Street Journal headline says of both states, “Power Outage Pushes Limits.” Utilities and utility commissions in those states and others are learning the lessons these storms have been teaching. It is one that New York City and the State’s Public Service Commission (PSC) learned following Hurricane Sandy: with each damaging storm, electricity grids designed to deal with historical weather and temperature patterns will become less resilient and, consequently, less reliable.

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law led the effort to guide New York to this lesson by intervening in a proceeding before the New York PSC after Sandy had wreaked havoc on downstate electricity distribution grids. Consolidated Edison, the utility company responsible for New York City’s grid, had conducted a narrowly focused assessment of its vulnerabilities to climate risks, and as part of its rate request, sought funding for routine triennial operations, maintenance, and investment, and for certain measures to protect against the next Sandy-like event. The Sabin Center proposed to the PSC that electricity ratepayers’ money should be allocated to (1) a thorough Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of ConEd’s facilities, and (2) efforts to adapt the grid to the circumstances revealed by the vulnerability assessment’s findings. The PSC endorsed this proposal—not only for ConEd but for utilities statewide. ConEd’s thorough vulnerability assessment is underway and is slated for completion in late 2019.

[Credit: Texas A & M]

New York’s experience of flooding amid Superstorm Sandy, complete with an exploding substation and long power outage, have prompted some state commissions, like California, to call on their utilities to examine whether they would be able to keep the lights on amid storms—and other weather events, like heat waves. Florida Power & Light’s (FPL) has buried power lines and replaced many of its wooden utility poles with concrete ones, but it remains exposed to unexamined hazards.

The U.S. Department of Energy has published guides on how to go about the task generally and in relation to sea level rise in particular, as well as a report on electricity grid vulnerabilities and countermeasures in different regions of the country. California’s Public Utility Commission built on those DOE reports in its state-specific guidance to its utilities. Several utilities in and beyond New York and California have conducted vulnerability assessments, albeit of varying scope and depth.

Conceptually, the task is simple: identify gaps between the existing grid’s capabilities and the future environment, and take steps to fill them. It starts by using the best available science to identify probable hazards to grid facilities, such as sea level rise, changing levels of ambient temperature and humidity, changes to precipitation and other features of the hydrologic cycle, and, where appropriate, increasingly frequent and severe coastal storms or wildfires. Practically speaking, this often means partnering with a nearby university to develop down-scaled projections of future scenarios for the region.

[Credit: Texas A & M]

Next, it requires comparing the parameters generated by those projections to existing design standards and locational choices. For instance, whereas New York City experienced temperatures above 90°F for 14 days each year (on average) from 1971 to 2000, it is projected to experience two to three times as many by the 2050s. During the 2012 ConEd rate case, it was shown that ConEd’s design criteria did not envision such temperature extremes and would have to be revised.

Finally, adapting the grid to address identified vulnerabilities means investing in countermeasures to future hazards. In New York, ConEd has created multiple layers of flood protections (both physical and operational), ensured that communications networks will operate despite the strains that come with big storms, and modified its design ratings and operational standards for hot weather.

Simply put, the nature of this hurricane season’s historically unprecedented storms makes clear that vulnerability assessments are not speculation and conducting them can save money, not waste it. Armed with simple questions about what levels of heat and flooding electricity facilities can handle, advocates can push utility commissions to imitate the New York PSC’s prudence. The legal basis is straightforward: all public utility commissions have a duty to advance the reliability of the systems they regulate, and Harvey and Irma have yet again demonstrated that extreme weather events are a great threat to reliability.

Information from Columbia University

For WeatherNation: Meteorologist Mace Michaels

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