When I dream about Hurricane Katrina (and I still do), it always starts with the refrigerators. Kenmore, GE, Whirlpool, Frigidaire, Amana. Hundreds of thousands of these abandoned appliances stood duct-taped shut on the curbs and yards of homes throughout New Orleans. Many were spray-painted with whimsical or forbidding messages. “Funky. Not in a good way.” “Free Beer and Maggots.” “Smells like FEMA.” “The Bowels of Hell await you within!!”
Katrina refrigerators (it’s a thing; Google it) are not the only or even the most dramatic example of the perils of power outages in extreme weather. Recall the chaos at Memorial Medical Center, where floodwaters marooned dozens of elderly patients on sweat-soaked bedsheets, without electricity or running water, until they were finally rescued or died. But the refrigerator meme is what haunts me because I’m a New Orleanian, and 11 years ago this month, I lived it.
From rancid food to emergency-room nightmares, communities take a punch when the lights go out. The nation’s aging power grid leaves us very susceptible to such risks. And the growing intensity of floods and storms on account of climate change make things even worse.
We hear a lot about how energy policy will affect climate impacts. Less appreciated, but equally important, are the ways that climate impacts will affect energy policy.
- Extreme weather events juiced up by global warming will knock out power plants and transmission systems across the continent.
- Rising seas and higher tides will swamp some of our most important power plants and substations on the coasts.
- Higher temperatures will slow high-voltage transmission speeds and increase outages related to sagging power lines. (And because more air conditioners will be blowing, electricity demand will jump at the same time.)
- Water shortages and warming rivers will suppress production at thermal power plants and hydroelectric dams in many parts of the country.
As officials at the Department of Energy have noted, this is a very big deal. New York City lost one-third of its generating capacity when Superstorm Sandy tore through its waterfront gas plants. Alabamans lost millions of dollars when the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant was forced to shut down because its cooling water was too hot to discharge into the state’s steamy rivers. And keep in mind that the Northeast blackout of 2003—the largest outage ever to affect North America—was triggered when a sagging power line shorted out one hot August afternoon.
Making the grid climate-ready requires forward-looking policies that will spur change in technology, operations, and markets. Such reforms are barely under way, and still more are needed: If we fail to account for the climate’s impact on our energy system and don’t start addressing them now, we’ll leave our children and grandchildren with a massive infrastructure problem—one that will affect their personal safety and economic well-being.
According to a report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are many ways to make the grid more resilient, which basically fall into four categories: hardening, smartening, renewing, and reducing.
Hardening refers to measures that protect equipment from weather-related damage, including building levees, restoring protective marshes, elevating substations, burying distribution lines, or simply trimming trees near high-voltage cables. As climate change drives more severe weather events, hardening will take on an even more significant role.
Smartening would increase the energy network’s flexibility and responsiveness by capturing the promise of various so-called “smart grid” technologies so that nodes in the electricity network can communicate in real time with one another and respond to new circumstances or needs. For example, if a tornado knocks out the transformer at a gas plant, a smarter grid could quickly pull more power from a wind farm. Or when triple-degree temperatures threaten a city’s elderly population, switches in the smart grid could assign priority to hospitals and cooling stations where electricity is a life-and-death matter. Climate change will make it crucial that we use our energy resources as efficiently as possible.
Renewable energy sources don’t just reduce carbon dioxide emissions—they appear far less vulnerable to extreme weather. This is because they aren’t dependent on external supplies of fuel or water and because they rely on simpler mechanical systems that are more compatible with natural processes. That’s particularly true of wind and solar. For instance, during a Texas heat wave in 2011, wind generators helped keep the lights on when several gas and coal plants were forced to shut down. Similarly, during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, ISO New England, which operates electricity transmission in the affected six-state area, received not a single report of damage to the network’s many wind turbines and solar facilities. The five-turbine Jersey Atlantic Wind Project, off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, took a direct hit from the storm, but was back producing power hours after it had passed.
Finally, energy-efficiency programs that reduce electricity demand help lighten the load on the grid, making it more flexible and resilient. Not coincidentally, they also lower carbon emissions, which helps slow global warming.
Like many challenges associated with climate change, the problem here isn’t a lack of smart technology; it’s a lack of smart policy. Decisions about land use, fuel choice, transmission technology, and consumer incentives are too fractured and decentralized. There’s also an incentives problem. Normally, we would say the owner of a profit-based facility doesn’t need outside prodding to invest in resilience because the avoidance of future damage to the property and of lost profits is, itself, the incentive.
But neither climate change nor energy markets are normal in this way. Because there is so much uncertainty in climate-change forecasts, owners may prefer research over action even when, logically, they shouldn’t. In addition, the plant owner and the public will probably value energy assets differently. For the owner, the cost of a damaged plant is measured in repairs and lost profits; it makes no economic sense to invest in resilience strategies beyond those potential losses. (Some of those losses will be insured against anyway.) But to the public, a damaged plant can mean the loss of people’s homes, jobs, and lives. With stakes that high, we understandably want investments in resilience that are higher than what the owner would do on his or her own.
All that said, glimmers of policy progress are out there. Recently, the New York Public Service Commission ordered Con Edison to use state-of-the-art measures to protect its electric, gas, and steam systems from the effects of climate change. The decision requires the utility to follow through with an ongoing climate-change vulnerability study and set an interim standard for the elevation of critical infrastructure, adding three feet of “freeboard” to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s existing structural standards for 100-year flood plains.
To their credit, some utilities perceive a long-term interest, too. Heeding the alarm bells of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, energy providers in some regions are beginning to seriously assess their vulnerabilities to extreme events and climate change impacts. Entergy Corp., which operates power plants throughout the Gulf Coast, estimates that it risks an annual loss of up to $40 billion by 2050. So it is hardening its facilities, sowing mangrove forests to protect coastal assets, and more. But efforts like these will require reliable data, legal frameworks, and sustained political will. And they can’t be piecemeal or sporadic. In researching a book on climate resilience, I asked Steve Tullos, Entergy’s senior manager of environmental strategy and policy, if he thinks we will ever bring such adaptive efforts to the scale needed to protect a region as large as the Gulf Coast. He thought it through carefully. “Honestly,” he said, “I really don’t.” “But,” he added, “that doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can.”
To that end, officials at many levels of government have begun preparing for the impacts of climate change. Just on Aug. 1, the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued final guidelines instructing federal agencies to consider climate impacts in their environmental impact statements. It’s probably not enforceable in court. But it’s an opportunity for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Interior, and other relevant agencies to start working with energy companies on systemic solutions to prepare for the challenges we face. That’s helpful. But the test will be how quickly elaborate planning can be turned into action.
After August’s torrential rains in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana is again in the news. The resulting floods destroyed about 60,000 homes and left at least 37,000 households and businesses without power. In contrast to Katrina, structural damage was minimal, thanks to the absence of high winds. But floodwaters submerged gas and electric meters in low-lying neighborhoods, and swamped a substation in Baton Rouge. (Other substations were threatened, but saved by last-minute sandbagging.) As waters recede from the neighborhoods, thousands of residents have begun hauling their duct-taped refrigerators out to the curbs. What inscriptions will we find on these mildewed monuments? Forget funky. It smells like climate change to me.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.