Saturday, July 20, 2024

How Future Hurricanes Could Stress Power Grids of U.S. Cities

The risk of hurricane-induced power outages could become 50 percent higher in some areas of the United States including Puerto Rico because of climate change in the coming decades, according to a new analysis.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Electric Power Research Institute mapped how future hurricanes could affect power supplies, allowing residents to see how vulnerable their electricity is.

The research comes just after Hurricane Beryl broke records as the earliest Category 4 and 5 storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm flattened islands in the Caribbean, killed at least eight people and left vulnerable island communities in shambles. On Friday, it made landfall on the Yucatán Peninsula and its projected path suggests it could hit northern Mexico and the Gulf Coast of Texas this weekend.

“These hurricanes can cause really devastating power outages,” said Julian Rice, a data scientist at the national laboratory who helped develop the map. Those outages can have subsequent effects, he said, like reducing access to health care and cutting off power used to heat and cool homes.

The researchers used computer s to model almost one million hurricanes under simulated climate scenarios. The models projected factors like humidity, wind and sea surface temperatures under various potential global warming situations between 2066 and 2100.

The Pacific Northwest team then partnered with the power research institute, a nonprofit group focused on electricity research, to pair these mock hurricanes with a power outage model that trained on outage data from 23 hurricanes that affected the United States over the last decade.

The projections suggest that increasingly stronger and wetter storms, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, will make landfall more frequently and push further inland, with tangible effects on the grid. In these scenarios, increased rainfall clogs soil and weighs down tree canopies. Trees can easily uproot or become unstable, falling on power lines or causing landslides that knock out electric infrastructure.

The Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastal areas are predicted to see the zone of potential climate-driven storms and hurricanes shift upward, exposing them more often to the risk of outages. The average person in the metropolitan areas of Boston, Houston and New Orleans could see expected outage events increase more than 70 percent per decade, the analysis found. In Tampa, it’s even higher, and in Miami, residents could see a 119 percent increase.

Hurricanes get a lot of attention from utility companies along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, said Andrea Staid, research leader in energy systems and climate analysis at the Electric Power Research Institute, who helped author the study.

But the analysis could help energy companies plan future improvements, she said. “It motivates them even more because it shows what can happen if we don’t adapt,” Dr. Staid said, “if we don’t take climate considerations into account when planning our energy system.”

Over the last decade, the number of weather-related power outages has almost doubled, according to Climate Central. Most major power outages between 2000 and 2023 were caused by extreme weather, and 14 percent of those were caused by tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

Some of the counties with the highest risk for more frequent power outages — like Broward County, Fla., Wilkinson County, Miss., and Hyde County, N.C. — also have the highest levels of social vulnerability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those counties have demographic and social-economic factors, like poverty and lack of transportation access, that can adversely affect communities that face natural disasters.

Joan Casey, an associate professor of public health at the University of Washington, said power outages amplify risk for people with underlying health conditions. Lack of power can quickly take people that are vulnerable, such as those who use electricity-dependent respirators, from relative safety to a dangerous situation.

The map has limitations. Researchers used the worst-case future climate scenario projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and considered a static infrastructure grid without factoring in potential changes that could harden the power system, like burying lines underground, strengthening poles, or installing community-scale solar.

But Karthik Balaguru, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researcher and co-creator of the map, pointed out that while it’s a worst-case model, some research suggests that we’re trekking closer to this model than any other by midcentury.

And hurricanes aren’t the only risk. Last week, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that by 2050, a different climate risk, sea level rise, could expose more than 1,600 critical buildings and services to flooding twice a year, including more than 150 electrical substations.

“It’s a wake-up call that we need to be addressing our power system and making it much more reliable and much more resilient to climate related stresses,” said Kristina Dahl, a principal climate scientist for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a co-author of the report.

Dr. Casey said we could take important steps now to invest in our grid, particularly with solar and battery storage that can provide community-scale power. But that won’t be enough.

“We have to stop burning fossil fuels,” said Dr. Casey. “That’s pretty much the answer.”

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