The US power grid is not prepared for the effects of climate change, which was made evident when the power cables melted during the heatwave in Oregon in July 2021. The incident halted the light rails and causing 6,000 people to lose their electricity (Heilweil, 2021).
In February, below-freezing temperatures in Texas have caused massive power outages that left 5 million people without a power supply.
Having a reliable power supply during extreme events can be a matter of life and death. With extreme events rising globally, there is an urgent need to develop resilience in infrastructure.
Extreme events are increasing worldwide
The DownToEarth article, “Europe to US to India, it’s been a week of extreme weather events” lists down 40 countries in North America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and Africa that has been ravaged by flooding, heat, wildfires, and heatwave.
Flooding in Europe has been dubbed the worst in a century, claiming at least 188 lives. Scandinavian countries, in contrast, experienced scorching heatwaves of over 25.1 °C, which in Finland is defined as extreme heat (Pandey, 2021).
New Zealand this year also experienced a series of floods this month on its East and West Coast displacing thousands of residents and damaging farms and infrastructure (McClure, 2021). And more recently, the death toll from severe flooding in China has reached 33 (Davidson & Ni, 2021).
Wildfires in the U.S. have also increased 21% from 2020 to 2021. Pandey (2021) says that weather patterns have been usually hot this summer, bringing unprecedented heatwaves, droughts, and cold and wet conditions in different places.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) attributes these events to human-caused climate change and predicts that this will become more frequent and severe (Pandey, 2021).
Extreme events and their impact on the U.S. power grid
Extreme heat and cold temperatures are not only driving up power demands as the people need to cool and warm themselves. Extreme temperatures can also damage the power infrastructure, like what happened in Oregon and Texas.
Another challenge that the U.S. power grid faces is the congestion of transmission lines that have maxed out on the amount of electricity they can carry. Congested transmission lines can affect the distribution of power to every home and affect the distribution and uptake of renewable energy.
According to the article, despite being a massive network consisting of several regional grids and interconnections, oversight of the U.S. grid is somewhat patchy.
Congestion of transmission, which can cause overcapacity of the grid, the spikes in demands due to extreme temperatures, and the extreme weather events can all combine to add pressure to the electric grid.
Anjan Bose, an electrical engineering professor at Washington State University, says that projecting the weather in the next two to five years is vital to project demands. Climate change, however, is making their projections more challenging. Until there is a solution to fix the electric grid or climate-proofing has been done, people will have to live with temporary power outages or get used to warnings to conserve electricity use.
Solutions to fix the U.S. Power Grid infrastructure
There is no simple solution to fix the U.S. electric grid problem, according to the article, but some steps can be taken to improve the grid, which includes: updating and adapting the grid to renewable energy uptake and changing the approach to energy consumption in general, enabling the system to predict and respond to changes in energy dominos, modernizing the grid and adding thousands of miles of transmission lines to expand renewable energy, and updating regional and local grid.
Developing Climate resilience in infrastructure
Damage and disruption due to extreme weather events can be very costly and often goes beyond economic costs. Due to the increased risk from extreme events and their huge impacts on infrastructure, there is an urgent need to develop climate resilience in infrastructure.
The McKinsey & Co article, “Climate resilience: Asset owners need to get involved now” enumerates three actions needed toward building resilience into infrastructure:
- “Incorporate risk assessments, and adaptation strategies into capital budges at the start of a project.” Incorporating adaptation strategies into an asset design will cost less than incorporating them after construction or in response to a major event. A preventative measure can save 5x the cost of repair.
- “Using a layered approach in applying adaptation strategies.” Aside from local regulations and guidelines, asset owners should also develop resilience strategies based on recent impacts and trends. A layered approach also includes a range of solutions starting with no-regrets and robust designs with minimal costs.
- “Adopt a resilience scorecard and rating system.” A formal resilience-risk assessment and resilience rating system will help asset owners identify risks exposures and adaptation strategies needed to protect assets from climate change impacts. At the same time, a scorecard rating system will help organizations towards more transparency in terms of providing climate-related financial risk disclosures to investors and other stakeholders.
Heilweil, R. (2021, July 3). The U.S. power grid isn’t ready for climate change. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/recode/2021/7/3/22560691/power-grid-climate-change-heat-wave
Pandey, K. (2021, July 20). Europe to U.S. to India, it’s been a week of extreme weather events. DownToEarth. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/europe-to-us-to-india-it-s-been-a-week-of-extreme-weather-events-78038
Davidson, H. & Ni, V. (2021, July 22). China Floods: death toll climbs as questions raised over preparedness. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/22/china-floods-military-blasts-dam-release-water-as-floods-death-toll-climbs
Rocca, M.D., McManus, T., & Toomey, C. (2019, January 14). Climate resilience: Asset owners need to get involved now. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/climate-resilience-asset-owners-need-to-get-involved-now
McClure, T. (2021, July 19). New Zealand west coast hit by heavy floods after month of rain falls in one weekend. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/19/new-zealand-west-coast-hit-by-heavy-floods-after-month-of-rain-falls-in-one-weekend