Thursday, September 09, 2021

Extreme weather renews calls to protect electrical grid

"With forecasters predicting that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of storms as warmer air gathers up more moisture that will be released as torrential downpours, finding a way to weatherproof utility systems has taken on new urgency," Dalvin Brown reports for The Washington Post. "Ida left more than 1 million power customers without electricity when it roared past New Orleans and through Mississippi last weekend, hurting or toppling more than 22,000 power poles and damaging 26,000 spans of wire, which transmit power between poles."

Burying power lines is the most common way of protecting electrical systems, but it's vulnerable to flooding, difficult to access for repairs, and often cost-prohibitive. A 2003 North Carolina study estimated the move would cost billions, increasing customers' utility bills by 125 percent. Pacific Gas & Electric, whose equipment has caused wildfires, just announced it will spend $20 billion over the next decade to bury 10,000 miles of power lines in wildfire-prone areas of California. 

If burying power lines is too costly, "many power companies are pioneering technology aimed at making their systems resilient in extreme weather, rather than immune," Brown reports. "The idea is it may not be possible to prevent a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds from toppling a 400-foot transmission tower as Ida did in Louisiana, but it may be possible to get the grid back up quickly after such a crippling weather event. As disasters linked to climate change become more common, energy companies have begun implementing these strategies and building extra-sturdy power lines that can withstand winds and flooding."

However, federal funding could help states and localities pay to bury power lines: "The bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed in early August contained $65 billion for the power grid, with $10 billion to $12 billion specifically for building new transmission lines," Emily Pontecorvo reports for Grist. "The Biden administration also announced last month that it is making nearly $5 billion available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for projects that improve community resilience to extreme weather."

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