One week after suffering a staggering collision with Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is in the throes of an agonizing humanitarian disaster.
The storm left at least 16 dead and the entire island without power; most people won’t get their lights back on anytime soon. The cascading effects have been devastating. More than half of residents remain without drinking water. Hospitals cannot function. Supermarket shelves are empty and few gas stations are open. Communication networks are crippled, and first responders are struggling to make contact with residents in remote or heavily affected areas. Credit cards are useless, and ATMs are out of service.
We know how to do better and we can do better. Nobody should die because the power went out.
We need a dedicated national effort to fortify our electrical grids so that they can get back online much more quickly after inevitable, and increasingly severe, extreme weather events. Natural disasters happen, but often the catastrophes that follow are man-made. And when it comes to the electricity system—the lynchpin upon which so much of our society relies—widespread, long-lasting power outages can quickly devolve into nightmares all their own. Just a few weeks ago, 11 senior citizens died in Florida following prolonged heat exposure due to power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Similar catastrophes were suffered in the wakes of many other earlier storms, including Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.
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The centralized electricity grid is widely vulnerable to threats, both natural and manmade. Flooding can submerge and damage equipment, as it did throughout the Northeast during Sandy; heavy winds can rip down trees and power lines, as was seen throughout Florida from Irma; and extreme heat and forest fires can wreak havoc on transmission lines. Climate change stands to escalate these threats, by contributing to higher seas, more intense storms, worsening wildfires and extended heat waves.
That’s why the focus must be on electricity grid resilience. It’s impractical and impossible to stop all outages from occurring. But it is possible to design the system such that when the power does inevitably fail, fewer people are affected from the outset and power is restored more quickly for the rest.
In Florida, policymakers directed the state’s utilities to “storm harden” their systems following the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. One decade and several billion ratepayer dollars later, Irma gave people a chance to see their increased utility bills at work.
The result: an astounding 6.7 million customers—or nearly two out of every three in the state—were plunged into darkness. Surely evidence of a failed approach, right?
Not quite. When it comes to the cascading failures arising from widespread outages, length of the blackout is a key factor in the severity of the impact. Even though all those Floridians lost power after, the utilities were able to get over one million back online overnight, and millions more restored within a few days with help from crews from across America.
In Florida, that pivot toward improving recovery times has meant, for one, simple upgrades, like replacing thousands of wooden utility poles with concrete that can better withstand hurricane-force winds. In the aftermath of Irma, even though crashing trees and flying debris ripped down power lines, restoration times were vastly improved by a reduced need to replace fallen poles.
Other initiatives can be more technologically complex. For example, by installing sensors and grid automation throughout the system, utilities can pinpoint when and where an outage has occurred, and re-route systems to reduce the number of people without power. Similarly, flood monitoring equipment can alert a utility when critical infrastructure is at risk of inundation, allowing the equipment to be pre-emptively turned off to improve post-storm repair times.
Tackling a problem this big, however, is impossible for each utility to do alone. Complicating the push for a more resilient electricity system is the fact that proposed interventions can be expensive, and investment dollars are limited. Additionally, the federal government has offered insufficient assistance, leaving states, cities and territories to largely fend for themselves, even though investing in a more resilient system now can reduce the costs of future relief and recovery efforts.
Utilities’ limited funds mean there are trade-offs, so opportunities must be carefully weighed against one another. But the costs of prolonged outages are far-reaching and challenging to quantify, and resiliency metrics are hard to define and even harder to compare. Efforts must also align with other priorities, especially as the power sector undergoes an unparalleled transition to clean and distributed renewable resources.
The fact also remains that some services are far too critical—drinking water, first responders, communications—and some populations, such as the elderly, disabled, or low-income, to tolerate even a day without power. For these people and services, a resilient grid is not enough.
Diesel generators, which have long-served a backup role when disasters hit, are expensive, heavily polluting, and prone to failure due to infrequent use. And as the long and frustrating lines following recent storms have made clear, maintaining steady access to fuel in the aftermath of a severe storm can be challenging, if not impossible. Microgrids powered by solar and storage, on the other hand, are more reliable during times of crisis, better for health and the environment, and increasingly affordable. This is thanks to lower costs of solar and storage technologies, as well as the fact that these systems can provide onsite power, generating benefits all year, not just during extreme weather events.
So what does this mean for Puerto Rico? Reports suggest parts of the island could remain without power for months, potentially impacting millions of people. This is unacceptable.
Now, as a country, we must pool together resources for a swift response to curtail the devastating crisis at hand. But we must also ensure that as the decimated power grid is pieced back together, this catastrophe—and the far too many that preceded it—were not suffered in vain. The electricity system must be rebuilt for a climate-resilient, clean-energy supporting future, not as a replica of its brittle and underinvested past.
Julie McNamara is an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. @UCSUSA
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.