Ecocentric

Hurricane Sandy Will Put a Rickety Power Grid to the Test

The U.S. power grid is a 20th century technology powering a 21st century country. Why Hurricane Sandy will stress it to the limit

  • Share
  • Read Later
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

A man walks his dog near downed power lines in Chevy Chase, Md., in the wake of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012

For most people in the path of Hurricane Sandy — save the hundreds of thousands who’ve already had to be evacuated from low-lying coastal areas and the occasional brave weather reporter — the biggest effect of the storm is the potential loss of electricity. As of Tuesday morning, after Sandy had made landfall, more than 6.5 million customers from North Carolina to New Hampshire had already lost power, including more than 1.9 million in New York alone. In New York City, the utility ConEdison shut down power in certain areas as a precaution to prevent greater damage to generating stations and other equipment in vulnerable areas. But that didn’t stop transformers in submerged parts of Manhattan from exploding in a burst of sparks.

It’s likely to get much worse. Experts estimate that power outages could affect as many as 10 million people along the East Coast, and it could take days or longer to fully restore service. That would be unprecedented; the number is a mark of just how destructive and widespread Sandy’s wrath could be. “The public should anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of power outages,” President Obama said Monday. “And it may take time for that power to get back on.” In other words: get ready to go dark — and stay dark.

(MORE: How Climate Change and the Monsoons Affect India’s Blackouts)

U.S. utilities haven’t had a sterling record recently when it comes to responding to storm events. The shock snowstorm that hit the Northeast last Halloween left some 3.2 million homes and businesses without power — some for more than a week — costing up to $3 billion, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The derecho storm that soaked the mid-Atlantic states in June this year left 5 million people in the dark, while Hurricane Irene in August 2011 took out power for some 7 million people. For many of those households, especially in the remote areas of states like Connecticut and Vermont, power wasn’t fully restored for weeks.

The threat to the grid from a storm like Sandy is twofold. Massive storm surges will flood low-lying coastal areas as well as any power-generation equipment in the way of the water. That’s particularly worrisome for the more than a dozen nuclear plants that stand in Sandy’s projected path. The nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant was caused not by the earthquake itself but by the tsunami’s surge of seawater, which knocked out the plant’s electrical generators. U.S. plants have been receiving “enhanced oversight during the storm,” according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The good news is that U.S. plants have been required to install backup electricity generators since 9/11, and they are required to shut down in the event of hurricane-force winds. The NRC says that all of the plants have flood protection “above the predicted storm surge.”

(MORE: How the Heat Wave Is Stressing Out the Electricity Grid)

If you live in the storm’s path, the other main threats to the grid are probably waving in the wind outside your home: trees. During the derecho, during Irene and certainly during Sandy, strong winds led to downed tree branches. Those have a habit of taking down power lines, which can then affect electricity access for thousands or more. It doesn’t take much; the great Northeastern blackout of 2003 began when a transmission line in Ohio sagged into a tree, touching off a cascading effect that led to the loss of power for more than 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Downed tree lines caused havoc with power lines during last Halloween’s snowstorm, which was intensified by the fact that most of the trees still had leaves, making them heavier and more prone to collapsing. That will likely be the case with Sandy as well.

Utilities had advance warning of Sandy — thanks, government scientists — and they’ve been sending out crews to trim trees near power lines. Connecticut Light & Power, which simply failed to have enough workers on the job after the 2011 Halloween snowstorm, began requesting 2,000 additional workers days before Sandy was scheduled to make landfall. The utility also doubled its tree-trimming budget to over $50 million this year. Other utilities have also had workers out early and often to get ready for Sandy. “We are far better prepared, particularly in coordination and communication, than we were last year,” said William J. Quinlan, senior vice president of Connecticut Light & Power, at a press conference last week.

Of course, it seems as if there could be a simpler solution than trying to keep wild trees trimmed: simply bury power lines to keep them out of harm’s way. But as Brad Plumer of the Washington Post wrote earlier this year, it is neither cheap nor easy to bury power lines underground:

On average, [the Energy Information Administration] found, underground lines can cost five to ten times more to build, per mile, than overhead lines. And that’s only construction. Utilities also have to dismantle the overhead wires when making the conversions. What’s more, repair costs can be higher for the underground lines — they don’t last as long and have to be dug up when they get old or break. The underground lines are also more vulnerable to flooding. But those costs need to be weighed against the (often steep) cost of blackouts. And overhead wires are more vulnerable during storms.

Altogether, just 18% of the U.S.’s distribution lines are buried underground, and only 0.5% of transmission lines are below ground. So utility crews will spend a lot of time cleaning up after downed lines and broken trees once Sandy has finally passed — which not be until much later in the week. Sandy’s sheer size will also stress those crews. Most disasters are limited to a few states, which means that neighboring states can send relief crews. But Sandy will hit almost the entire Eastern seaboard, leaving individual states struggling to take care of themselves.

The U.S. power grid is delicate even under the best of times: a 20th century technology charged with keeping a 21st century population charged. There’s hope that new smart-grid advancements, including distribution automation and smart meters that can keep utilities apprised of problems in real time, will make the grid more resilient in the future. But for now, as Sandy socks the East Coast, all we can do is hope that the lights stay on. At least for a little while longer.

MORE: Is the U.S. Ready for a Nuclear Emergency?

35 comments
William SP
William SP

innovate electrical wire / cable less connection more advance technology, weather control micro nuke the center of storm to neutralized pressure ...im thinking crazy now.........

keybd29
keybd29

"The good news is that U.S. plants have been required . . ." 

Done.  Ever the good news.

thehoneybadger
thehoneybadger

Utilities are bound by the regulatory compact since they are natural monopolies. This means state regulators set their service rates that customers pay. Regulators are usually appointed by the state governor, and no state politician wants rates raised on their watch. In addition, slower population increases and energy efficiency means utilities are collecting less money but their costs are only going up.

In many states, its a broken model. And that - ladies and gentlemen - is why we have what we have today. An aging infrastructure that the utilities can't fix and that regulators won't increase rates to fund. And innovation that doesn't happen fast enough to move the needle.

In addition, when the utilities want to do more aggressive tree-trimming to reduce the risk of overhead lines going down, the environmental groups step up and say they're over-extending. When the utilities want to install smart meters that will help them manage outage restoration (in addition to providing tons of benefits to customers), regulators balk at the costs and the public gets angry because the rf energy coming out of a meter is like 1/10000 of a 20 second cell phone call.

All the media arguments harp on the same facts over and over and over again. underline cables, aging infrastructure, blah blah blah. Who out there is going to do the investigative reporting needed to shine light on the fact that our model is broken?

All readers aren't on the the 5th grade education level...

ShaneMeeker
ShaneMeeker

As much as the utility companies charge, they should have no problem modernizing. Instead, they use the money to pay for huge administrative salaries, lobbying, takeovers and lawsuits. The answer might be found in complete and total competition. Anyone can sell power to anyone, anywhere, regardless of franchise contracts and such.

tomsthumb01
tomsthumb01

Sandy and the "rickety power grid" are unrelated.  Distribution automation, smart meters, nothing available or in the works would prevent this week's power outages.  That much water and that much wind would render anything we've invented so far inoperable.  Poorly written article for even suggesting this was preventable. 

Timothy Berry
Timothy Berry

Prevent the water in Hurricane Alley from getting warm enough to form a destructive hurricanes in the first place...and the solution is simple. Ask Nathan! No use cutting a tree down at the top, you have to start at the root!

Mateusz Wolciu
Mateusz Wolciu

Stop killing innocent people. Maybe karma will stop hitting you back

Gashu Tena
Gashu Tena

by curbing global gas emissions and halting the effetcs of climate change

Rotkang Job
Rotkang Job

I think the best way to prevent sandy & other Hurricanes in the future besides moving the power lines underground, is for the electricity companies to innovate & come up with an entirely new technoloy as far as power generation,transmission & distribution

Bob Silva
Bob Silva

Underground. Plain & Simple .

Peter Minton
Peter Minton

Underground is not a cure all. I lost power 3 times over the summer on normal dry days. And it took longer to diagnose and fix because the lines were underground, not in the air.

Cynthia Davis Smith
Cynthia Davis Smith

Give President Obama the money He has been asking for to improve the infrustructure-it would also put people back to work!

akpat
akpat

Well I dont often agree withe 'the Donald' but he put it something like this :

'We can spend hundreds of billions on the other side of the world blowing it up and then we spend hundreds of billions rebuilding it. Then they blow it up and then we spend hundreds of billions building it and they blow it up again, and so we spend hundreds of billions building it and sure enough the blow it up again, but we cannot afford a new school in Brooklyn'

Gracie Ess
Gracie Ess

How about turning off the lights in Time Square? I am sure the energy could have been needed elsewhere.

Rakesh Kapur
Rakesh Kapur

WITH THE HURRICANE SANDY AFFECTING THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ON THE EVE OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, HERE COMES TO MY MIND A FAMOUS PHRASE WHICH READS LIKE '''''COMING EVENTS CAST THEIR SHADOWS BEFORE'''''. REALLY SPEAKING IT IS NOT A GOOD SIGNAL

Kathy Haines
Kathy Haines

Underground utilities. Good argument for investment in infrastructure.

Glenn J Heller
Glenn J Heller

Invest in infrastructure and move the power lines underground. Either that or figure out how Tesla was going to put free electricity out over the air! ;)

Stephanie Vanderyacht
Stephanie Vanderyacht

We can't, there will be more in the future and the power companies won't be able to keep up.

Beth Pilz
Beth Pilz

Defect prevention matters! This is true homeland security.

thehoneybadger
thehoneybadger

Look at your utility bill and list 2 other commodities you pay less for on a real basis over the last ten years. Regulators have done a good job keeping rates as low as they can be in the bad economy. The costs to support the electric grid are massive and not going down. They would go up 100 fold if the system were divided up into many distribution companies since you would eliminate any type of scale.

Many states are unregulated so you can purchase the electricity from anyone, but your local utility will always be the one delivering it to your house.

MichaelTyler
MichaelTyler

@ShaneMeeker : if you think even more deregulation will solve the weaknesses of the US electric utilities, you are foolish indeed. 

thehoneybadger
thehoneybadger

@akpat President Obama had almost a trillion dollars to spend in his stimulus package. With all his smart cronies and his green energy platform - he failed to address the elephant in the room. Nothing innovative from him on how to move the needle forward and break the regulatory gridlock. 

I love the Democrats on social issues. The Republicans have so many problems here you could fill a binder full of them...haha

But because Mr. Obama has yet to offer any kind of clever use of taxpayers money to move the nation forward - I'm for either keeping the money myself or giving it to someone with different ideas who knows how capitalism and government work together.

MichaelTyler
MichaelTyler

@akpat:  Astonishing. Donald Trump said something that made sense !!  But on this one occasion, he did. 

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@akpat Bush ran against nation building, got into office and then went nation building.