The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Swiss Re, a leading insurance company, recently published a report, Lights Out: The Risks of Climate and Natural Disaster Related Disruption to the Electric Grid, that explores the threats changing weather patterns, caused by climate change, represent for American electrical grids. Grid infrastructure, vital to our modern quality of life, is actually very vulnerable. By drawing from case studies and examples from electric grid developments in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, the report illustrates the challenges and strategies in those regions. In the western states in 2015, almost a quarter of unplanned grid outages were caused by extreme weather events and variability in environment. Because climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, communities everywhere will need to take steps to better prepare for, and if possible prevent, major outages.

The impacts of outages extend beyond residential houses: the economic losses can be considerable. The national cost of power outages in 2012, the year of Superstorm Sandy, was between $27 to $52 billion. Working towards a resilient grid is not just a matter of energy security, but also of economic security.

Unfortunately, the U.S. electrical grid infrastructure, like many other parts of our infrastructure, is showing its age (see the 2017 WIRES conference on electric transmission infrastructure). It was not built with higher temperatures, more intense storms, and larger loads in mind. Utilities will need to invest in more decentralized and resilient grids to reduce such climate risks. The good news is, such investments can also make grids more efficient, by making them "smart." Smart grids basically enable two-way communication between electricity consumers and producers. They make it easier to pinpoint and circumvent disruptions, and they can also allow utilities to adjust electricity demand to avoid costly spikes.

Further diversifying our energy sources to include renewables is also critical in order to make our electricity supplies more resilient. Many forms of renewable energy are distributed, making renewable-powered businesses and families less dependent on a small number of large, centralized power plants. Microgrids can also play a key role in making communities more resilient. In the midst of Superstorm Sandy, as midtown Manhattan was shrouded in darkness, New York University was able to keep most of its lights on, and its hot water running, thanks to a natural gas-powered microgrid that could be disconnected from the main grid. Anticipatory transmission planning, which considers uncertainties facing the grid through scenario-based analysis, can assist in planning for resiliency and putting all these pieces together. Meeting the risks our electric grid faces with these innovative and pragmatic approaches could save Americans up to $50 billion a year, making it well worth the investment.

Electric grid resiliency is a topic of increasing research and development at all levels of government and the private sector, as authorities realize its security implications (see our recent briefings, The National Security Implications of Climate Change and Energy Emergency Preparedness: A Critical Federal-State-Private Sector Partnership). On June 28, the House Armed Services Committee formally acknowledged climate change as a threat to national security through an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment would direct each service branch to compile a list of the ten facilities under its command deemed the most vulnerable to climate change over the next 20 years. In particular, the process would include an evaluation of each base's energy security. In July 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine released a report, Enhancing the Resiliency of the Nation’s Electricity System, recommending that the U.S. Departments of Energy and Homeland Security work closely with regional and state agencies, and with utility operators and other stakeholders, to improve cyber and physical security and resilience of electricity supply systems. The report describes potential strategies for preventing and mitigating outages, coping with outages when they occur, and expediting the recovery and learning from outage experiences

EESI is holding a series of briefings on "Building Resilient and Secure Infrastructure," to examine state and city initiatives, building materials and methods, the role of national labs and federal R&D spending, coastal resilience, and national security. You can watch the first two briefings in the series here:


Authors: Guille Peláez and Rick Nunno