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Climate Change Is Creating Unrelenting Challenges For The Country's Power Grid

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It powers so many aspects of modern American life - electricity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONICS RUNNING)

KELLY: And without it - nothing works. So what happens when the electric grid itself fails? The creaky patchwork of power lines, transformers, substations and transmission lines that crisscross America and support our dependence on energy is aging.

If I asked you to give it a letter grade, what would that letter be?

ALICE HILL: Well, it certainly wouldn't be above a C.

KELLY: That is Alice Hill, climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served on President Obama's National Security Council staff. And old age is not even the most urgent challenge facing the electric grid. That would be climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Back-to-back winter storms slamming the country.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Power emergencies...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Four million customers lost electricity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't know what we're going to do. We're all freezing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Hurricane Ida, slamming into Louisiana.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Half a million in Louisiana are still without power.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We can't live without power.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's worse than Katrina hit here.

KELLY: Those voices are all from this year, talking about the big freeze in Texas, the chaos left by Hurricane Ida. They speak to a grid that is woefully inadequate for 2021.

All this week, we are looking at infrastructure in this country and what Congress' trillion-dollar infrastructure bill would and would not do to fix it. Today, the electric grid, a grid struggling to meet current demand, much less a future world where more and more of us drive electric cars, heat our houses with electric furnaces and which was built, says Alice Hill, the former NSC official, on a giant assumption.

HILL: Everything that we've built, including the electric grid, assumed a stable climate. It looked to the extremes of the past - how high the seas got, how high the winds got, the heat.

KELLY: Turns out, says Hill, the past can no longer safely guide us, not even close.

HILL: It's a little like we're building the plane as for flying because the climate is changing right now, and it's picking up speed as it changes.

KELLY: Utility companies and public planners know this, Hill argues. They are trying to shore things up. She points to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as a no-more moment, when the storm surge came in higher - way higher - than anticipated.

HILL: They thought the maximum would be 12 feet. That storm surge came in close to 14 feet. It overcame the barriers at the tip of Manhattan, and then the electric grid - a substation blew out. The city that never sleeps plunged into darkness. But after that, some utilities took it to heart, particularly Con Edison, and invested deeply in trying to get more resilience in their grid going forward.

KELLY: They took steps like burying power lines, introducing artificial intelligence and upgrading software to spot failures early. But upgrading the way humans assess risk - Hill told us that is harder.

HILL: The way we do assess risk is based on our own experience. What happens is that some people tend to think, well, that last storm that we just had, that'll be the worst, right? No, there is a worse storm ahead. And then, probably, that will be exceeded. That's very difficult for us to grasp - so many questions that we don't have much experience with in terms of planning for an event that no one's ever experienced before.

KELLY: Well, we wanted to see firsthand how one tiny dot on America's grid might be preparing for an event that no one's ever experienced before, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING BY)

KELLY: We drove out to Edgemere, Md., suited up in hard hats, goggles and thick canvas safety suits.

LAURA WRIGHT: You can tell they're brand-new. Nobody's worn them.

KELLY: Yeah, Velcro's all good.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: Hard hats are also brand-new. They are adjustable, so you can click them to tighten them and turn it to loosen, so it fits on your head.

KELLY: And we waited for a heavy gate to roll open.

WRIGHT: Hold on. Let me grab the lock first. It is very heavy.

KELLY: A gate marked danger - hazardous voltage inside - keep out. This is Baltimore Gas and Electric's Fitzell substation, a small forest of steel poles and branches and coils, pulling in high voltage electricity from transmission lines, stepping it down to lower voltage, then delivering it to homes and businesses in central Maryland.

WRIGHT: So if we stop right here, what we are looking at right now is a transformer. And this transformer is the one that's going from 115,000 volts down to 34,000 volts.

KELLY: Our guide, Laura Wright, she is director of transmission and substation engineering. Now, this substation is only a year or so old. They've got four transformers on site, plenty of capacity to meet demand for now.

WRIGHT: They're not projecting to need that additional capacity for a while, but we designed this station to be able to take that transformer out and put in a larger one.

KELLY: Wright says it'll be population growth, plus the anticipated shift to electric cars that determine when that larger transformer here at Fitzell substation might be required.

And what about climate change?

WRIGHT: So with climate change, we do look at the sea level, and we look at the rise and what could potentially occur there to make sure that we're taking that into consideration with the slopes that we've built and with any kind of protections for water, so that we're not going to have flooding. And if it does impact, again, with electricity usage goes up or down, we can modify our system here to be able to accommodate.

KELLY: In a worst-case scenario, like flooding or a tornado, they can roll in mobile transformers.

WRIGHT: Which is essentially a transformer on a trailer. And so if we were to have a failure of a transformer, we can bring one of those mobile transformers into the substation, park it in the substation, connect it up in place of that transformer. And we can do that in two to three days.

KELLY: Now remember, this is a new, modern substation. Older sites can be knocked offline for weeks. Just ask the folks in Louisiana still living without power more than two weeks after Hurricane Ida. And now another storm, Nicholas, could complicate repair efforts.

Daniel Cohan of Rice University is an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering. His grade for the nation's electric grid - C-minus. So we asked him about Congress' proposed big fix - that trillion-dollar infrastructure package - would it improve things? How far would it go towards nudging his grade towards an A?

DANIEL COHAN: The infrastructure bill, unfortunately, only scratches the surface. If you drill down into how much is there for the power grid, it's only about $27 billion or so, and mainly for research and demonstration projects and some ways to get started. But the investments - and mostly private sector investments - that we'll need to really improve our grid is measured in the many hundreds of billions of dollars per decade.

KELLY: Well, I was going to ask, is there any dollar sign that would fix this? Or is fixing the grid a bottomless money pit, always going to be a work in progress?

COHAN: Right. Well, we need to see it as an investment because the investments we make in our grid end up saving us. And most of that investment is probably going to come from the private sector, from utility companies and other businesses installing these. And so what I look for in an infrastructure bill is not just how many taxpayer dollars is the federal government putting towards this problem, but is it creating the conditions that will get the private sector acting? And, unfortunately, I think the infrastructure bill, so far, misses some opportunities to do more to spur the action that we need.

KELLY: So what does the trillion-dollar package get right? What's it fix? Cohan says it moves in the right direction, but it doesn't set mandates, and it doesn't devote, in his view, enough money to the problem.

So it sounds like your overall impression of the electricity piece of this trillion-dollar infrastructure package is it's aiming in the right direction, but it's a pretty feeble start - like, you wouldn't give it much above a C, either.

COHAN: Right. I think it probably deserves about a C or C-minus, like the grid itself. It's better than nothing, but, you know, with such momentous challenges that we face, this isn't really up to the magnitude of that challenge.

KELLY: So where does that leave us? And what happens if we don't get it right? Daniel Cohan.

COHAN: If we don't get it right, then we're going to keep having a power grid that goes down as extreme events keep getting more extreme, as the climate keeps getting warmer. And we're going to, you know, keep slowly adding wind and solar to the grid, but we're going to remain, you know, heavily dependent on coal and natural gas for many years in the future. The opportunity I see is that I really do think it is realistic to replace nearly all the fossil fuels on the power grid with clean sources by, you know, 2035 or so. But the politics and the will haven't been there yet, the ability to actually build things in this country again, to build the power lines and resources and infrastructure we need to bring all this together. And it also can lead to more affordable electricity, more reliable electricity, a power supply that bounces back more quickly when these extreme events come through. So we're not just doing it to be green or to protect our air and climate, but we can actually have a much better, more reliable energy supply in the future.

KELLY: Daniel Cohan of Rice University.

And that, right there, is the question and part of what we are investigating all this week in our series on infrastructure - whether the politics and the will and the money are there to build things in this country, whether our political leaders can rise to the challenges posed by climate change, extreme heat and crumbling infrastructure designed for a different era, whether those leaders can find their way to working with utilities and the private sector to repair and reimagine our water supply, our roads, our broadband, our electric grid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: And tomorrow, an update from Flint, Mich., and the families, doctors and advocates who didn't wait on an infrastructure bill to fund the replacement of lead pipes. Hear their message to federal lawmakers and to the scores of cities that still have lead lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.