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Quantifying the Risk of Coastal Blackouts from Climate Change

A new report from Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) titled “Lights Out? Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help” shows how climate change is increasing the risk of widespread and persistent blackouts by threatening coastal electric infrastructure.

[[{"fid":"2125","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Blackout in New York City","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_folder[und]":"105"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Blackout in New York City","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_folder[und]":"105"}},"attributes":{"alt":"Blackout in New York City","height":"286","width":"468","style":"float:right","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]Deployment of renewable energy and resilience technology such as microgrids could become a key aspect of hardening the nation’s electrical infrastructure and addressing climate change.

The report was featured in a webinar moderated by the Clean Energy Group’s Resilient Power project. The webinar, “Sea Level Rise – A Grid Submerged,” took place on Nov. 3.

Researchers modeled localized and moderate sea-level rise from climate change. They then deduced the effect of that sea rise on hurricane storm surges over time.

UCS used this data to map the number of power plants and substations that would be exposed to storm surges in five regions across the East Coast of the United States.

The report’s findings show an existing exposure to storm surge in all five modeled areas. The exposure becomes more acute as climate change effects increase.

Combined Data Sources Help to Map Storm-Surge Impact

This report focuses on storm surge: an unusual rise in sea level on a coast due to the action of high winds. The impacts in the report exclude any potential flooding from rainfall or damage from wind.

Sea-level rise projections were based on the following data:

UCS mapped how rising sea levels would magnify the impact of storm surges over time. The researchers then plotted the location of power plants and substations in five East Coast regions to assess the impacts of the storm surges on electrical infrastructure.

During the webinar, Julie McNamara, energy research associate at UCS, said that “the grid is designed to be able to handle the loss of one or two major generators or substations, but once you lose more than a couple, you can experience widespread outages.”

The Model Incorporates Limited Assumptions

There are several important caveats to this model.

  • Storm-surge protections that are already built into energy infrastructure were omitted.
  • Certain power plants and substations may already have the protection necessary to withstand the increased storm surges modeled in this report.
  • Storm surge is an extremely complicated phenomenon that is difficult to model. A Category 5 hurricane could have modest levels of storm surge while a less-severe Category 3 hurricane could have a significant storm surge.
  • The model assumes “a worst-case high water value” for a Category 3 hurricane.

Climate Change Will Further Expose Vulnerable Infrastructure

The findings of the report are alarming.

Though variable, all five regions had a significant number of critical electrical assets that would be exposed to storm surge at today’s sea levels.

The impact of rising sea levels also varied depending on the specific geography.

One can conceptualize storm surge effects in two dimensions: depth and extent. According to McNamara, storm surge can cause wider-scale flooding. In some cases, “the height of water can keep increasing while the extent may not grow so much.”

Southeastern Florida, for example, currently has only 37 substations and two power plants exposed to storm surge. By 2030, however, the number of exposed substations is expected to rise to 53. By 2070, that number would be 119.

On the Central Gulf Coast, in contrast, the number of exposed substations is expected to grow by only 19 from now to 2070, limiting the increase in exposure in the region. The number of exposed power plants is expected to increase by only one.

The depth of water these assets will have to be able to withstand is projected to increase dramatically, however.

Today, on the Gulf Coast, only six power plants are exposed to more than ten feet of storm surge. That number jumps to 10 by 2030 and 17 by 2070.  

McNamara discussed the AD Patterson Power Plant in New Orleans. That power plant was submerged in six feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. The flooding left it “sufficiently damaged so as not to be able to come back on line until quite some time after the storm had passed.”

Current Resilience Measures May Not Be Adequate

While there is no explicit data about resilience measures currently in place at these power plants, the report did have interesting anecdotes about preparation.

According to the report, “the majority of planning decisions and flood protection policies continue to be informed by historical data that greatly underestimate the risk of future flooding exposures.” Ralph Izzo, chairman, president and CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group, a major operator in the Delaware area, said in 2015 that his company built its assets to the guidelines required by the government.

McNamara provided other examples as well. Dominion Virginia Power, the primary utility in the Charleston area, has begun a $500-million grid-hardening program. However, McNamara said “the emphasis right now is more on the physical security – including video cameras and safety fences – as opposed to a serious dialogue on climate change.”  

Microgrids, Renewable Energy, and Energy Storage May Provide Solutions

The report explores solutions such as microgrids, distributed renewable resources, energy storage, combined heat and power, and energy efficiency as necessary technologies to achieve resilience.

These technologies simultaneously harden the grid and reduce the growth of storm surge levels by addressing climate change.

Deployment of these technologies requires appropriate financing.

UCS hopes other researchers will make further progress toward quantifying the expected damage from climate change, the potential savings these technologies can convey in avoided electrical infrastructure reinforcement, and storm surge recovery.

Policy makers and project developers should consider the impact of these technologies when completing projects in coastal areas.

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