Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Impetus for a More Resilient US Electric Grid

The approach of August marks the start of peak hurricane season in the Atlantic.  Characterized by fierce winds and coastal storm surge, hurricanes often wreak havoc on the already vulnerable US electric grid. According to the National Climate Assessment, anthropogenic-caused climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of hurricanes and other extreme weather events.  Strengthening the resilience of the grid and mitigating further anthropogenic climate-related change will minimize the impact of severe weather events on the grid, and thus, to the US economy.

US electric grid modernization is key for protecting the US economy in the 21st century.  The American Society for Civil Engineers gave America’s energy infrastructure a rating of D+ in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.  Many grid components are old, which only increases the risk of extreme weather related power outages.  Severe weather is the primary cause of power outages in the US, which are expected to rise as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of such events.  The costs associated with power outages can be significant, and a grid that is better able to survive extreme weather events, and keep the duration and number of power outages low is important.

In the short-term, resiliency or “hardening” measures should be pursued.  Hardening grid infrastructure can help protect it from extreme weather events, especially in coastal and other areas that have a high risk of flooding.  For example, a common hardening activity to protect against flood damage is to elevate or relocate grid components to areas that are less prone to flooding.  In addition, making the grid “smart” can help pinpoint where outages occur and isolate afflicted areas. However, many hardening measures are not cheap, and could come with high upfront costs to implement.  The trade-off is that these investments will alleviate the level of damage future storms have on the grid, and hence, reduce the associated costs to the US economy.

In the long-term, addressing anthropogenic-caused climate change will reduce the risks to the grid by mitigating the frequency and severity of future extreme weather events.  This will require policy approaches that promote energy efficiency and greater use of renewables, and decrease man-made CO2 output into the atmosphere.   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan rule is one such approach.  EPA’s carbon rule should reduce GHGs from new and existing power plants, and help mitigate further climate changes that will exacerbate extreme weather events.    While some older coal power plants may be forced off-line once the rule is finalized, the long-term result should be a more resilient and reliable grid.  States have flexibility in the implementation of the rule, which should encourage diversification and innovation in how electricity is generated and consumed.

A business as usual approach is not an option.  The hardening of existing infrastructure and mitigating further anthropogenic climate change will minimize the impacts of extreme weather, thus strengthening the resilience and reliability of the grid.  However, even ignoring the potential impacts of climate change, the US electric grid needs a modern upgrade in order to support an expanding US economy.  Future hurricanes will certainly bring gale force winds, but they should also bring an impetus for grid modernization.


Joel Scata is freelance writer and lawyer based in Chicago.  His main area of interest is the intersection between energy and the environment.       

Morning Consult