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Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

The Effects of Natural Disasters on Energy Infrastructure - Wanter Uja

August 19, 2020

THE EFFECTS OF NATURAL DISASTERS ON ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE

                                                  Wanter Uja - LLM Student

 

Ratepayers in America are used to abundant, reliable and uninterrupted electricity. Their access to this abundant, reliable and uninterrupted electricity becomes a major concern in the wake of natural disasters, when energy infrastructure often fails. The grid collapse/ failed infrastructure in the aftermath of these disasters turns out to be disruptive first of all to the economy. In 2009, the energy industry accounted for about 4% of GDP in the United States.1 Understandably, the collapse of energy infrastructure is capable of crippling any economy, albeit temporarily. Secondly, disasters and their attendant impacts on energy infrastructure are life threatening as evidenced by the 11 deaths reported after a Florida nursing home was left without A/C in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Recorded as the longest blackout in US history, Hurricane Maria ravaged the power grid in Puerto Rico in 2017. The outage which completely cut of electricity to the island, claimed the lives of thousands, many of whom died because the hospital’s power was knocked out by the storm. Thirdly, it has been shown that hurricanes are the biggest causes of electricity outages and proves that the nations grid is not prepared for disasters which will likely worsen as the climate changes.

 

Securing the nation’s energy supply and protecting infrastructure is a major concern given the nation’s dependence on reliable and uninterrupted energy delivery.2 Because the development of energy infrastructure is quite expensive, the question then becomes what role the government (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission- FERC), whose mandate it is to ensure the provision of this abundant and reliable electricity, should play, and the function of private entities (normally utilities) who own and manage more than 80 percent of energy infrastructure.3

 

After a disaster strikes, government officials and energy companies must first make sure that critical infrastructure facilities like power plants are operating and that emergency responders, medical professionals and critical care facilities have the energy supplies they need to operate.4

 

Hurricane Sandy (2012, referred to as Sandy) was among the most devastating storms to impact Connecticut’s overhead electric distribution network, resulting in over 15,000 outage locations that affected more than 500,000 customers.5 The damage it had on the energy infrastructure was so significant that it caused power outages and months after the storm, power had not been restored to all areas of New York and New Jersey.6

 

California has always been subject to wildfires, which burns and destroys high tension electric transmission lines that cause billions of dollars of damage. Large wildfires throughout California have in the past two years also claimed at least 44 lives statewide, destroyed thousands of structures and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate their residences.7

 

CLIMATE CHANGE

The topic of climate change and its impacts on the environment is another contributing factor to natural disasters which trigger the collapse of energy infrastructure. These extreme weather events emphasize the fact that nation’s electric infrastructure is very vulnerable to long and widespread blackouts.8

 

The effects of GHGs- which contribute to natural disasters- take on a life of their own in the sense that increased temperatures or droughts trigger wildfires and the emissions from these events, causes more warming which in turn increases the frequency of these extreme weather events.9 It seems evident that increased links between GHG emissions and extreme weather events will most likely create legal risk for the fossil fuel industry.10 These risks stem from the fact that the industry had engaged in climate science, which gave them adequate knowledge of the risks to human health and the environment, but still hid it from the public and its investors. In 2011, carbon dioxide accounted for about 84% of GHGs in the US, with 97% of those emissions attributable to energy use, making it clear that there must be a change in the energy sector in a bid to reduce significantly the levels of GHGs and curb climate change.11 A shift to cleaner green energy might be unavoidable because a nation’s economy grinds to a halt without power supply which is brought on by grid collapse, triggered by the effects of climate change. For example, thousands of businesses that were not affected by the flood after Sandy could not operate their business because they could not turn on lights or use their refrigerators or even process payment for customers.12

 

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), two broad overarching ways to reduce the potential impacts of climate change on energy infrastructure are to invest in hardening and resiliency efforts because “a strong and resilient grid is vital to America’s security, economy, and modern way of life”13. Hardening refers to making physical upgrades to energy infrastructure that make it more durable. Hardening efforts includes protecting electricity equipment with waterproof material, capable of shielding it from water damage in the event of a flood for instance, thereby making it less susceptible to damage in the event of a flood.14 It also includes burying major electrical equipment underground and elevating substation equipment like transformers so high above storm level water damage.15 Resiliency includes improving response time during a blackout and reducing the amount of time lights stay off after a blackout.16 While it is difficult to attribute any individual weather event to climate change, natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires provide insight into the potential climate-related vulnerabilities the United States electrical grid faces.

 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states that restoration of power after power outages is solely within the purview of utilities. However, when outages are so long and significant that it is impractical for the utilities to handle alone, the Federal Government provides assistance and together they come up with timelines for restoration of electricity. The process of providing this timeline invariably asks the question what specific roles the utilities and government should play in the restoration process, including who bears the cost of rebuilding infrastructure.

 

The purpose of this post is to show how climate change brings about natural disasters, which in turn affects energy infrastructure, and recommend possible policies to make the grid more resilient and less vulnerable to disasters.

 

Investor owned utilities were natural vertically integrated monopolies and were granted eminent domain but are regulated by Public Utilities Commission. They are liable when they damage or destroy property in exercising their eminent domain powers.17 Under California law, utilities are liable for damages if their equipment start or cause wildfires, irrespective of whether or not they acted prudently.18 This is not always cut and dry because the State of California for over a decade has been prone to fires brought on by strong winds.19 Utilities and policy makers have still not reached a consensus on who should bear the cost of making the grid more resilient and less prone to these fires.20

 

The lingering question on the minds of most people after these long power outages brought on by natural disasters is what could have been done to prevent it. Admittedly, there is probably no fool proof means of planning for disasters, the magnitude of Hurricane Maria, Katrina or Sandy. However, it behooves the government to put plans in place that will help prevent against such future occurrence.

 

First, burying transmission lines also called undergrounding will provide reliability and likely prevent outages during storms and in case of fires. This is neither straightforward nor simple because even though utilities are required to provide safe and reliable electricity at just and reasonable rates, any costs they incur in the provision of this service is ultimately passed on to ratepayers. It has been estimated that undergrounding will range between $1m and $10m approximately per mile, depending on the topography. However, since protecting the nation’s electricity infrastructure is essential to its safety, the cost of hardening the grid should not rest solely on the ratepayers. Investing in reliable infrastructure should be a priority of the government, because with the increasingly volatile climate, there may very well be more outages brought on by disasters.

 

Although grid reliability (hardening and resiliency) efforts are commendable, they are not enough to ensure a stable grid. Most of the existing energy infrastructure are over 100 years old and so they are weak and more susceptible to collapse. Rebuilding smarter is vital to ensure maximum grid efficiency. Public utilities and the government must work together to create policies, capable of withstanding catastrophes and keeping the lights on. Policies mandating research and development including cost/benefit analysis will be a step in the right direction. Also, policies that mandate the fast tracking of permitting processes for example, where the utility has identified promising methods of transitioning to a smart grid.

 

Distributed generation is an innovative way to ensure that lights stay on in an extreme weather event. While the general perception is that installation of solar panels effectively takes homes “off the grid”, this is not necessarily true in the sense that these panels are connected to the grid and send excess electricity back to the utility grid. There are ways to tap solar energy in the event of grid collapse after a weather event. A special inverter connected to a battery can enable buildings to island or isolate themselves from the grid, as they continue to produce and store power.21 If utilities invest in grid scale storage with mini grids (DG) deployed, it will save a lot of cost because the fuel for solar is free. Combines with Recs, Tax Credits and Investment Credits, the utilities will be able to recoup their sunk costs while maintaining just and reasonable rates for customers.

 

Lastly and even though not practical in the long term, the installation of community scale solar generators. The Patriot Power Generator is a portable solar generator designed to provide electricity for important devices and equipment during a power outage or in the event of a disaster.22

Electricity is essential to everyday life and as discussed, can be deadly when it cuts out, especially for long periods. The world is changing, and so must our energy sector. The process of adapting the grid to the ever-changing climate cannot be carried on by utilities alone. It requires collaboration with the federal, states and local governments, including NGO’s, Nonprofit Organizations and ratepayers.

 

 

 

1 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, data for Nigeria, Venezuela and Kuwait: HIS Global Insight.

2 Kristy Hartman, Protecting the Nation’s Energy Infrastructure: States Address Energy Security, National Conference of State Legislatures (2014).

3 Department of Energy, Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response, https://www.energy.gov/ceser/activities/cybersecurity-critical-energy-infrastructure.

4 See David Sandalow’s remarks as delivered at the Columbia University Energy Symposium, Hurricane Sandy and Our Energy Infrastructure, Nov. 2012, https://www.energy.gov/articles/hurricane-sandy-and-our-energy-infrastructure.

5 Lackman, G.M et al. A Case Study on Power Outage Impacts from Hurricane Sandy Scenarios (Case Study- Author Abstract) 57, Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, 29, 51 (2018).

6 John Manuel, The Long Road to Recovery, 121, Environmental Health Perspectives, 147, 153 (2013) (Impacts of Hurricane Sandy).

7 Laignee Barron & Mahita Gajanan, California Wildfires Have Become Bigger, Deadlier, and More Costly: Here’s Why, Time, Nov. 13, 2018, at 1.

8 Philip Mihlmester & Kiran Kumaraswamy, Evaluating the Cost Effectiveness of Grid Hardening Investments, 151, Pub. Util. Fort., 46, 47 (2013).

9 Jonathan Lovvorn, Special Preview: Climate Change Beyond Environmentalism Part I: Intersectional Threats and the Case for Collective Action, 29, Envtl. L. Rev. 2, 12 (2017).

10 Jim Krane, Climate Change and Fossil Fuel: and Examination of risks for the Energy Industry and Producer States, 4 MRS Energy & Sustainability: A Rev. J. 1, 8 (2017).

11 Cinnamon Carlane, Delinking International Environmental Law and Climate Change, 4 Mich. J. Envtl. & Admin. L. 1, 49-51 (2014).

12 David Gilford, For a Strong Economy in the Face of Future Storms, Cities Need Resiliency Innovation, Breaking Energy, Feb. 21, 2014

13 States News Service, Department of Energy Announces Investment to Improve Resilience and Reliability of the Nation’s Infrastructure, (2019).

14 U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-14-74, 1 Climate Change: Energy Infrastructure Risks and Adaptation Efforts (2014).

15 Meredith Hiller & Stephen J. Humes, Resilience in the Utility Industry: Working Against the Rising Tides, 31, Nat. Resources & Env’T, 13 (2017).

16 Mihlmester & Kumaraswamy supra, note 8.

17 John Fiske & Scott Scummy, Unnatural Disasters, 55, Jan. Trial, 30, 34-35 (2019).

18 Ethan Howland, SoCal Edison to Spend I.8 Billion on Wildfire Prevention, CQ Roll Call, Oct. 31, 2019.

19 John B. Meigs, California Unplugged: To Prevent Blackouts, The Entire State’s Power Grid is Subject to Timed Blackouts, Eye On The News, Jun. 18, 2019.

20 Jacob Fischler, Wildfires Spark Movement Toward Public Control of California Utilities, CQ Roll Call, Dec. 2, 2019.

21 Supra at 21.

22 Patriot Power Generator Maker Applauds New Jersey’s Focus on Generators for Emergencies, M2Presswire Sept. 3, 2013.

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