Just 10 years after a vast power outage shut down the Northeast, the electricity grid remains “highly vulnerable” to blackouts because of extreme weather events fueled by climate change, according to a report issued Monday by the White House and the Department of Energy (DoE).
The Aug. 14, 2003, blackout occurred when an alarm failed in an Ohio utility control room, leading to a cascade of blackouts that affected 50 million people from Michigan to Massachusetts. Put that aside for a moment, there have been even more recent power outages caused by severe weather, such as storms in the East and wildfires in the West.
Between 2003 and 2012, 679 blackouts occurred due to weather events, each affecting at least 50,000 customers. Over the same time period, weather-related outages cost the economy between $18 billion and $33 billion annually, depending on the number and severity of events. If you do the math, over 10 years the total cost was between $180 billion to $330 billion.
“The aging nature of the grid — much of which was constructed over a period of more than one hundred years — has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather,” the report found.
The analysis of the power grid was in response to a plan President Barack Obama laid out in late June to combat climate change and better prepare for it. Already, weather shaped by human activity has hit the United States more rapidly than had been predicted, threatening infrastructure, water supplies, crops and shorelines, according to the draft Third National Climate Assessment, a federal report last issued in 2009.
Last year, superstorm Sandy knocked out power for 8.5 million customers. Strong winds from hurricanes and tornadoes are the main cause of the kind of infrastructure damage that leads to blackouts, the report said.
In Maryland, weather events including Hurricane Irene in 2011 and the June 29, 2012, wind storm prompted calls for hardening of the electricity grid. Both storms caused more than 750,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers to lose power for an average of nearly two days, with many outages stretching up to a week.
Power plants, especially those that burn coal, contribute to climate change through emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop rules to curtail carbon dioxide released by new and existing power plants, with the next round of proposals due in September.
But while the new report on the power grid spotlights the system’s vulnerabilities and offers suggestions for improvement, it also underscores how little the administration can do to boost electricity reliability.
Most utilities are publicly traded corporations and their activities are generally regulated by the states. The Obama administration allocated $4.5 billion for investments in energy efficiency and reliability systems, called “smart grid” technology, as part of its 2009 stimulus plan. But on a conference call to discuss the report, senior administration officials could not name other ways to drive improvement of the electricity network at a time when threats from climate change are mounting.
The report also recommended greater use of distributed generation, or small-scale power sources, such as from renewable energy, that could end up installed in communities or near critical facilities, such as hospitals, thereby avoiding outrages caused by downed power lines or flooded transmission substations.
Electric utilities have invested $478 billion in infrastructure improvements since 2007 and are expected to spend more than $90 billion annually on capital expenditures through 2015, said Richard McMahon, vice president of energy supply and finance at the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington trade group.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated there would need to be $673 billion in investments by 2020 to upgrade the grid to meet future demand.