America Desperately Needs To Invest In Protecting Its Energy Infrastructure

Governments and energy companies worldwide must consider the level of preparedness of their national energy infrastructure in the face of climate change and more frequent severe weather events, to prevent greater damage in high-risk areas. The impact of natural disasters on energy infrastructure has been well documented, with experts having highlighted the long-term risks of ill-prepared systems for several years. In a 2017 study of the power grid following 16 earthquakes, 15 space weather events, and 20 floods by the European Commission, the need for greater disaster preparedness became clear. 

 

The study showed that different disasters affect the power grid differently. For example, earthquakes “cause inertial damage to heavy equipment (such as generators and transformers) and brittle items (for example ceramics), and ground failure and soil liquefaction can be devastating to electric infrastructure assets.” Meanwhile, floods “are commonly associated with power outages. Erosion due to the floodwaters and landslides triggered by floods undermine the foundations of transmission towers. Serious, and often explosive, damage may occur when electrified equipment comes in contact with water, while moisture and dirt intrusion require time-consuming repairs of inundated equipment.” And a space weather event “affects transmission and generation equipment through geomagnetically induced currents (GICs)… [which] have the potential to impact the entire transmission network.” 

The authors recommended that risk assessments be carried out across grid systems in different regions; infrastructure is reinforced to withstand these types of disasters; management plans be prepared for disasters; spare equipment is stockpiled for repairs; governments prioritize rapidly repairing critical energy infrastructure following a severe weather event. Despite these clear guidelines, more mitigation action needs to be taken in many parts of the world where we are seeing more cases of extreme weather events. 

As the U.S. pumps greater funding into its nuclear energy sector, there are concerns about what a weather event could meet for America’s nuclear plants. The U.S. is currently the largest producer of nuclear power worldwide, with an output of 771,638 GWh of nuclear electricity in 2021. But lots of America’s nuclear power infrastructure is outdated, with around 92 commercial reactors across the country has been in operation for 40 years or more. Many citizens are concerned about the future of nuclear power plants in the face of extreme weather, particularly after seeing the impact of a natural disaster on Japan’s Fukushima power plant in 2011. 

Areas such as south Florida, which has been hit by several hurricanes in recent years, are prime examples of this concern. Moreover, as climate change intensifies, the amount and magnitude of natural disasters are likely to increase. Despite the high cost of constructing a nuclear power plant, to avoid a nuclear disaster, mitigation plans must be put in action and U.S. nuclear infrastructure will likely need to be updated to withstand the severe weather in the coming years. 

A more recent study explored what impact a double weather event might have on energy infrastructure. Researchers at The Ohio State University used a machine learning model to predict how susceptible overhead transmission lines are to damage when natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, occur in quick succession. One of the main findings was that “previous damage has a considerable impact on the fragility and reliability of these networks if it can’t be repaired before the second hazard hits.” In addition, the order in which disasters occur can have a big impact on the level of damage seen. Abdollah Shafieezadeh, a co-author of the study, explained: “Our work aims to answer if it’s possible to design and manage systems in a way that not only minimizes their initial damage but enables them to recover faster.”

Studies such as these are vital for informing greater disaster preparedness and energy infrastructure policies as we are continuing to see the catastrophic result of being ill-prepared, such as in the case of Puerto Rico. Five years after Hurricane Maria, the country’s grid system is still expensive and ineffective. Luma Energy, a joint venture between Houston-based Quanta Services and Calgary-based ATCO, took control of Puerto Rico’s power grid in 2021. It was put in charge of maintaining and modernizing the grid. However, citizens quickly began to protest the takeover as customers were experiencing “longer restoration times, voltage fluctuations and poor customer service.”

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To date, improvements have yet to be made to the infrastructure, with regular blackouts being seen. Tom Sanzillo from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis stated, “Since [Hurricane] Maria, they have basically just restrung the wires, they fixed some of the transfer stations, and the basic generation system is still the same… That means we’re sort of nowhere, and nothing’s really been fundamentally invested in the grid.” This led citizens in Puerto Rico to protest Luna’s role in electricity provision, with hundreds of residents marching to Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s home in Old San Juan, demanding the Luma contract be canceled, just two months before the most recent Hurricane Fiona, to no avail. 

And it’s not only Puerto Rico that is dealing with the aftermath of severe weather events, Canadian residents were also complaining about the ongoing lack of electricity around a month after Fiona hit the Atlantic region. Experts emphasize the need for significant investment and modernization to make infrastructure more resilient to climate change. With climate change bringing about more extreme weather events worldwide, governments should take recommendations from experts seriously. Governments and energy firms must pump funds into energy infrastructure in high-risk areas to prevent greater destruction than already being seen, as well as mitigate the negative knock-on effects of prolonged periods without access to electricity. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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