Hurricane Sandy Will Put a Rickety Power Grid to the Test

 

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It’s likely to get much worse. Experts estimate that power outages could affect as many as 10 million people along the East Coast—and if the power goes out, it could take days or longer to fully restore service. That would be unprecedented, but the number is a mark of just how destructive and widespread Sandy’s wrath could be. “The public should anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of power outages,” President Obama said on Monday. “And it may take time for that power to get back on.” In other words: get ready to go dark—and stay dark.rricane Sandy—save the hundreds of thousands who’ve had to be evacuated already from low-lying coastal areas and the occasional brave weather reporter—the biggest effect of the storm is the potential loss of electricity. As of Tuesday morning—after Sandy had made landfall—more than 6.5 million customers between North Carolina and New Hampshire had already lost power, including over 1.9 million in New York alone. In New York City, the utility ConEdison shut down power in certain areas as a precaution, to prevent greater damage to generating stations and other equipment in vulnerable areas. But that didn’t stop transformers in submerged parts of Manhattan from exploding in a burst of sparks.

 

(MORE: How Climate Change and the Monsoons Affect India’s Blackouts)

U.S. utilities haven’t exactly had a sterling record when it comes to responding to recent storm events. The shock snowstorm that hit the Northeast last Halloween left some 3.2 million homes and businesses without power—some for more than a week—costing up to $3 billion, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The “derecho” storm that soaked the mid-Atlantic states in June this year left 5 million people in the dark, while Hurricane Irene in August 2011 took out power for some 7 million people. For many of those households—especially in the more remote areas of states like Connecticut and Vermont—power wasn’t fully restored for weeks.

The threat to the gird from a storm like Sandy is twofold. Massive storm surges will flood low-lying coastal areas, as well as any power generation equipment in the way of the water. That’s particularly worrisome for the more than a dozen nuclear plants that stand in Sandy’s projected path. The nuclear meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant was caused not by the earthquake itself, but by the tsunami’s surge of seawater, which knocked out the plant’s electrical generators. U.S. plants have been receiving “enhanced oversight during the storm,” according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The good news is that U.S. plants have had to install backup electricity generators since 9/11, and they are required to shutdown in the event of hurricane-force winds. The NRC also says that all of the plants have flood protection “above the predicted storm surge.”

(MORE: How the Heat Wave Is Stressing Out the Electricity Grid)

If you live in the storm’s path, the other main threat to the grid is probably waving in the wind outside your home: trees. During the derecho, Irene and certainly during Sandy, strong winds lead to downed tree branches. Downed tree branches have a habit of bringing down power lines, which can then affect electricity access for thousands or more. It doesn’t take much—the great Northeastern blackout of 2003 began when a transmission line in Ohio sagged into a tree, touching off a cascading effect that led to the loss of power for more than 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Downed tree lines caused havoc with power lines during last Halloween’s snowstorm—intensified by the fact that most of the trees still had leaves, which made them heavier and more prone to collapsing. That will likely be the case with Sandy as well.

Utilities have had advance warning of Sandy—thanks, government scientists—and they’ve been sending out crews early to trim trees near power lines. Connecticut Light & Power, which simply failed to have enough workers on the job after the 2011 Halloween snowstorm, began requesting 2,000 additional workers days before Sandy was scheduled to make landfall. The utility also doubled its tree-trimming budget to over $50 million this year. Other utilities have also had workers out early and often to get ready for Sandy. “We are far better prepared, particularly in coordination and communication, then we were last year,” said William J. Quinlan, the senior vice president at Connecticut Light & Power, at a press conference last week.

Of course, it seems like there might be a simpler way than trying to keep wild trees trimmed—simply bury power lines to keep them out of harm’s way. But as Brad Plumer of the Washington Post wrote earlier this year, it is neither cheap nor easy to bury power lines underground:

On average, [the Energy Information Administration] found, underground lines can cost five to ten times more to build, per mile, than overhead lines. And that’s only construction. Utilities also have to dismantle the overhead wires when making the conversions. What’s more, repair costs can be higher for the underground lines — they don’t last as long and have to be dug up when they get old or break. The underground lines are also more vulnerable to flooding. But those costs need to be weighed against the (often steep) cost of blackouts. And overhead wires are more vulnerable during storms.

Altogether, just 18% of the nation’s distribution lines are buried underground—and only 0.5% of transmission lines are below ground. All of which means that utility crews will spend a lot of time cleaning up after downed lines and broken trees once Sandy has finally passed—which not be until much later in the week. Sandy’s sheer size will also stress those crews. Most disasters are limited to a few states, which means that neighboring states can send relief crews. But Sandy will hit almost the entire Eastern seaboard—leaving individual states struggling to take care of themselves.

The U.S. power grid is delicate even under the best of times—a 20th century technology charged with keeping a 21st century charged. There’s hope that new smart grid advancements—including distribution automation and smart meters that can keep utilities appraised of problems in real times—will make the grid more resilient in the future. But for now, as Sandy socks the East Coast, all we can do is hope that the lights stay on. At least for a little while longer.

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