Coast Electric Power Association felt the full brunt of a hurricane when Katrina landed on the coast of Mississippi. Many homes and business were left reeling in darkness as the hurricane destroyed the substations. These have been since repaired but are not any safer than before the storm hit.
When Hurricane Irene hit the Northeast in 2011, it marked the first time in the history of Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) that more than 200,000 customers lost power due to a storm. Superstorm Sandy struck just 14 months later, quickly followed by a devastating Northeaster, leaving 1.1 million customers literally groping around in the dark.
An Associated Press analysis of industry data found that these storms are a growing threat and the leading cause of outages in the nation’s electric grid. Over the past decade, the power outages related to bad weather have increased, meaning power companies have to find a way to get to grips with this problem.
“It was clear to us that weather patterns were changing fundamentally. Severe weather events were becoming more frequent and devastating,” Allan Drury, a Con Ed spokesman, said in an email.
“I think it is an open question as to whether utilities are investing enough in the infrastructure needed to harden the system against storms, and on simple but effective things like tree trimming,” said Roshanak Nateghi who is the author of a report in the journal Risk Analysis.
In May, the report told of the fact that the U.S. power grid is increasingly blacking out when hit with severe weather, and lags behind other developed nations in terms of reliability.
Electric companies are looking to upgrade their systems and harden them to the effects of the storms that come rolling through. This is, however, a very expensive undertaking that the smaller cooperatives cannot handle without some federal assistance. Con Ed, a large investor owned company, has dished out $1 billion to harden its system and Drury says that the utility has been able to afford all the upgrades that it wants.
Despite the upgrades being costly, the outages also take out a large financial chunk out of the pie. According to a 2013 report by the White House, power outages related to weather take out between $18 billion to $33 billion from the nation’s economy.
Electric companies, therefore, try as much as possible to upgrade their systems to safeguard them from the weather. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gives utility companies funds to facilitate in their rebuilding process after catastrophes.
Coast Electric Power Association received about $100 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance grants, but the money allowed it only to repair the flooded substations to pre-storm conditions.
FEMA offered more funds that would have been used to raise the flooded substations but the time it would take to make analyses of everything involved would have taken too much time before the construction itself took place.
This would have left over 6,500 accounts – spread over the urban Mississippi areas in three counties as well as other rural ones further inland – in darkness. Once the work got underway upon receipt of the funds, the company could not change the stipulations under which to use them and, therefore, the stations returned to the same way they had been before the storm struck.
The recent blizzard that has covered the East Coast of the United States in a blanket of white has led to power outages in many areas as well. Emergency services are still battling to reach affected people whereas the utility companies are finding ways to safeguard their systems from the wrath of nature.
Drought also contributes to power outages as witnessed in California. Last year, regulators ordered the state’s investor-owned utilities to set priorities for inspecting and removing dead and sick trees near their power lines, warning that climate change has facilitated and exacerbated numerous wildfires that have damaged and threatened their facilities. The utilities could, however, ask for funding to carry this out.