Grid experts grapple with ‘resilience’ in Ida’s wake

By Kristi E. Swartz, Edward Klump, Mike Lee | 09/08/2021 06:07 AM EST

Toppled utility poles littered a road as crews worked to restore power in the wake of Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2 in Albany, La. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The widespread destruction left by Hurricane Ida after the storm plowed into Louisiana and headed up the East Coast made one thing clear: There’s more work to be done in building a resilient power grid.

But how might solutions differ from New Orleans to New York, especially as climate change scrambles conventional wisdom about when and where extreme weather strikes?

“The nature of the risk has changed,” said Saurabh Amin, an associate professor with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Ida made landfall Aug. 29 as a Category 4 hurricane and is responsible for at least 15 deaths in Louisiana and 50 more across the Northeast.

President Biden, who traveled to storm-ravaged New Jersey and New York yesterday with a contingent of federal officials including climate change adviser Gina McCarthy, said scientists have warned for decades that climate change would bring more intense storms.

"We’re living through it now," he said at a briefing with state and local emergency management officials in Hillsborough Township, N.J. "We can’t turn it back, but we can prevent it from getting worse."

Many electric companies nationwide have taken steps to shore up their grids. But when the lights go out, fingerpointing starts: Power providers haven’t done enough; people aren’t prepared; the nation has ignored climate change. Changing a massive, complicated structure that delivers electricity involves a clash of powerful priorities that include keeping the grid reliable and safe, making sure electricity bills stay stable, and using cleaner fuels.

The key is to prepare for a future when the worst-case scenario may look different than the past, said Jeff Dagle, a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who has studied grid resilience in Puerto Rico and Louisiana.

“Personally, I’m 54 years old, and in my lifetime, I’ve seen three one-in-100-year storms,” Dagle said.

Ida knocked out power to about 948,000 customers of Entergy Corp. — largely in New Orleans and other parts of southeastern Louisiana — trailing only the 1.1 million left in the dark by Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, where Entergy is based, also was cut off from the wider grid temporarily because of transmission failures.

Entergy’s transmission issues have included over 200 affected high-voltage power lines and substations. On the distribution system, Entergy’s damages included more than 30,000 poles and more than 5,900 transformers.

For some areas, "this will not be a repair," Phillip May, president and CEO of Entergy Louisiana, told reporters last week. "It will be a rebuild."

Entergy said on Monday that more than half of Louisiana customers who were affected by Ida had their power restored. Still, it could be days or weeks before grid electricity returns for some people in hard-hit areas.

Biden toured Louisiana’s storm damage on Friday by air and on foot, meeting with local officials and energy executives at an emergency operations center and pledging the federal government’s support.

Entergy said it has been investing in its overall system, including some $12.6 billion in transmission and distribution construction and other investments since the start of 2016.

But unhappiness with the utility is boiling up in New Orleans after repeated issues with keeping the lights on in the storm-prone city. The company’s planning and operations already were under scrutiny after blackouts earlier this year.

The company now faces questions as to why it wasn’t more prepared to keep electricity flowing or to restore power more quickly in the wake of Ida. That includes concerns about why Entergy didn’t start running the natural gas-fueled New Orleans Power Station sooner after the storm moved through the area.

Entergy has countered that it’s working as quickly and as safely as possible to restore electricity service disrupted by Ida.

Wanted: Imagination and planning

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more expensive as the Earth’s climate becomes warmer, according a to U.N. report released last week (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

During the 1970s, there were 711 extreme droughts, storms and heat waves, the report by the World Meteorological Agency said. By the 2010s, the number had climbed to 3,165.

The cost of those disasters rose from $49 million a day to $383 million a day during the same time period, after adjusting for inflation.

“We are already entering unchartered territory when it comes to frequency, magnitude and possible combination of extreme weather events,” Pierre Audinet, senior energy analyst at the World Bank, said in an email.

Louisiana has seen some of the heaviest impacts. Ida caused $27 billion to $40 billion in damage to the Gulf Coast states, according to the insurance data firm CoreLogic. And it came a year after an extraordinary season that saw 11 named storms hit the U.S. mainland, including three in hurricanes in Louisiana — Laura, Delta and Zeta (Greenwire, Oct. 30, 2020).

Storms are being aided by warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico. That means they’ll cover a broader area when they make landfall, they’ll push farther inland and they’ll likely produce more rain, CoreLogic CEO Tom Larsen said.

"We as a society have gotten really good at reacting and responding" to emergencies, Larsen said. "With climate change, reliance strictly on a rapid response may be insufficient."

Companies must integrate forward-looking information and science to think about how temperatures, sea-level rise, storms and other risks are projected to change, said Judsen Bruzgul, senior director for climate adaptation and resilience at ICF, which is advising the Department of Energy and utilities.

"With climate change, that historical backward-looking approach is going to fall short against the risks they do need to plan for,” he said.

A key industry trend is switching the focus to adaptation instead of mitigation, said Chris Burgess, projects director for the Islands Energy Program at RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute. If the planet is warming to the point that heat waves are melting electrical conductors, it’s time to think differently, he said.

“Everything we do now has to be re-engineered to the future,” Burgess said.

A chief drawback is cost. Burgess pointed to research that showed it’s 10 times cheaper to put overhead lines back in New Orleans after Ida than bury them underground.

“You literally could go through 10 Idas before it pencils out to undergrounding,” he said.

Biden has used Ida’s widespread damage as an opportunity to pitch his infrastructure plan.

“So many of the ways in which we transmit energy is lost because they’re all wooden telephone poles,” he said during his Louisiana visit. “We know for a fact, if they’re underground, they’re secure,” he added, acknowledging that it costs more.

“But guess what?" he said. "It saves a hell of a lot more money long-term.”

Others have called for DOE or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to step in, even as state and city governments will have to consider their tolerance level when it comes to issues such as major construction and cost.

Another challenge is sustaining the conversation around resilience after power has been restored. Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center (PURC) at the University of Florida, pointed to a period after Superstorm Sandy hit New York. The Category 3 storm was a gut punch to areas of the country that rarely experience hurricanes, but concerns about its effects dissipated after the lights returned, he said.

“You’ve got to have the conversation,” Kury said, “It’s the only way things are going to get better.”

He pointed to Florida, which got walloped with back-to-back hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, prompting utility regulators to issue a wide range of requirements for all of the state’s electric companies.

Each had to file an annual storm plan, which regulators reviewed during open hearings.

Severely damaging hurricanes then spared Florida for roughly a decade, giving rise to chatter about why so much time and money needed to be spent on those reports and hearings.

“Well, when the storms came back, we got the answer,” Kury said. “It would have been really easy for someone to say, ‘It’s no longer a big deal; let’s stop doing this,’ but they didn’t.”

Strategic options

When a hurricane knocks out electricity to millions of people, a cry to bury all the power lines is almost sure to follow. Ida’s winds were strong enough to damage transmission lines and a tower, however, which was notable to Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute at Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.

Smith said more transmission lines are needed to connect southeastern Louisiana, and he would favor undergrounding transmission where it makes sense — such as crossing navigable waters.

“If you had martial law and an unlimited budget, you would be spending money on the grid” for power and pipelines, Smith said. The energy institute at Tulane received early funding from Entergy.

Putting transmission lines underground is technically feasible but could backfire, said Kury at the public utility research center. This is because a significant amount of heat could build up around the lines, causing them to fail.

They are also susceptible to flooding, which only slows power restoration compared with an aboveground system.

Meanwhile, microgrids and other local generators can island parts of the power grid — but only if it’s not damaged in a storm.

Batteries are expensive and currently are in limited supply. Environmentalists argue that microturbines that run on natural gas, propane or diesel spew too much emissions, only adding to natural disasters fueled by climate change.

“Even the really expensive solution isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Seth Guikema, an industrial and operations engineering professor at the University of Michigan.

Most experts argue that there’s no single remedy, and that it takes a combination of fuels, technologies and designs to build a resilient system. This could include using multiple transmission lines to create redundancy; relying on reinforced concrete poles instead of wooden ones; deploying smart meters and other control systems that can reduce demand during an emergency; and placing anemometers on top of utility poles to get local wind speeds.

Utilities also can plan to divide their service areas into "mini-grids" that would allow some parts of the system to keep running when there’s storm damage, said Dagle, the DOE researcher.

That approach has worked well for the islands, RMI’s Burgess said. Cities and towns are using solar and storage combinations that generate enough electricity to run emergency centers and other critical infrastructure.

For areas that storms like Ida demolish, the idea is to rebuild methodically, block by block, Burgess said.

“You don’t snap your fingers, and everything goes from a centralized power system to a decentralized power system,” he said.

David Dismukes, executive director of the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University, likened the cost of investments to car or life insurance in terms of avoiding negative consequences. But Dismukes, who has consulted on reliability and resilience in various parts of the country, didn’t fault utilities for not wanting to invest aggressively at levels to harden everything, given regulatory risk and cost issues. He said no one wants to see electricity rates higher than they have to be.

“These are forms of insurance that I got to go out and buy, and what happens [if] the event doesn’t happen and I’m sitting here holding the bag, and then you come back and say, ‘Well, why’d you do that, dummy?’" Dismukes said.

State gatekeepers

Electric companies can come up with a well-designed plan to harden the power grid, but that doesn’t mean it will be put into action. State utility regulators often act as gatekeepers against major capital investments that would drive up customer electricity bills, if they don’t think most customers will benefit.

“Utilities aren’t stupid. They know that undergrounding prevents outages, but they aren’t going to put that cost into a rate and have the [public utility commission] deny that 99 percent of the time,” said Burgess at RMI. “That’s the dilemma.”

State utility regulators typically hold hearings for the public and interested groups to weigh in on any proposed capital investments that an electric company wants to make, particularly because usually customers are the ones who eventually pay for it.

“The interaction between the regulator and the utility is always critical when we talk about how we are working to make the grid more resilient,” Kury at the University of Florida said.

Regulators are charged, in part, with deciding whether a grid-hardening project is providing value for everyone on the system. When the project affects one neighborhood or a small part of the city, that question becomes complicated, he said.

The tension between cost and long-term reliability is woven through state and local debates across the country. It’s cropped up several times during discussions about reforming the grid in Texas, where a winter storm killed more than 200 people in February in the wake of massive power outages.

Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said the impact on customers won’t be forgotten.

“While we are clearly demonstrating a bias towards action and enhancing reliability as soon as we can and in as many ways as we can, we’re not going to do it in a foolhardy manner with a blank check that burdens consumers with undue costs,” Lake said during a recent meeting. “We’ll pay a little more for reliability.”

Jimmy Glotfelty, another commission member, at the same PUC meeting discussed a proposal called Southern Cross that could help link the main Texas grid to the Southeast while letting the state retain its primary oversight of the largely isolated grid. Glotfelty suggested the project might be part of a range of solutions.

"We can’t look at these weather events as static, one time, build transmission one time. They are going to happen again and again,” he said.

Reporters Lesley Clark and Peter Behr contributed.