Climate Change & The Grid

11 Mar 2021

By Andy Vesey

Last month, it messed with Texas. Last fall, it made the Golden State redder than Mars. While the past year has posed a daunting and wide array of challenges to Americans, no single threat is as dire—and outright existential—as climate change. Yet, this looming crisis takes many forms across the nation—from rising sea levels to burning mountain sides—the most visceral point of contact it makes with Americans is the same: the power grid. 

Extreme weather is the new norm: the polar vortex dips, hurricane season lengthens, super storms surge, and fire season stretches over more and more of the calendar. The grid itself is, of course, powered largely by hydrocarbons that must be replaced by renewable, non-methane energy for our planet to survive. However, we must maintain functionality in the meantime in adverse conditions. 

In my 40 years in the energy sector—including years served at the helm of PG&E, AGL Energy, and AES Corporation—I have seen disruptive weather become the norm. If those four decades have taught me anything, it is that while we cannot predict what will come, we can prepare. As Nassim Taleb wrote, “never cross a river if it is on average four feet deep.” In other words, we need to prepare for the worst beyond what is considered average or “normal”—more to the point, what our perception of normal should be is radically changing. Climate change is presenting contingencies for which we must plan—or continue to suffer dire consequences. 

As a disastrous frigid weather winds down for most of the country, we must allow seasonality to instruct us what to do, and show us how to best allocate our present resources and invest in a safer, cleaner future. To do this, we need more agility from existing players in competitive and regulated markets, as well as more investment in cleaner energy technology. The key to do any of that preparation is to fundamentally shift our notion of risk analysis. Science plainly states climate change is driving our extreme weather; the picture that NASA scientists paint is dire. Yet, fundamental disbelief in climate change still drives markets and can be seen in everything from the refusal to do more to protect against rising sea levels in New York and storm surge in New Orleans to the lack of winterizing in Texas or the shamefully fragile power grid in Puerto Rico. This serial lack of investment is an indication of a broken, outdated mindset that both allows damages to happen and doesn’t allocate resources to improving the resilience of the systems that have failed. 

Once we accept that climate change will continue to disrupt our extant power grids—with continuous loss of life and irreparable damage to our environment as well as our economy—we need to work with the tools we have to prepare for the worst each season. What each season even is has been changing. In Texas, February has been considered a “shoulder month,” meaning that it isn’t particularly hot or cold, so a lot of plants do maintenance. But now that the polar ice caps are warming, the polar vortex has become unstable and February, as we now have seen, is fully capable of blanketing the Lone Star State in snow. Similarly, the length of the fire season continues to grow in California.

In the wake of the power outages in Texas, much has been made of the fact that its grid is independent. Customers certainly need supply they can use that isn’t in their area, and supply lines that stay reliable in extreme conditions. Interconnected systems do not improve the robustness of individual systems when faced with extreme weather: the Western interconnected grid didn’t save California during the wildfires, much as the interconnected Eastern grid didn’t save New York during SuperStorm Sandy, which caused $74.8 billion in damage and cost over 200 lives. In fact, what caused the great blackout of 1977 in New York was a freak lightning strike that took out key 345 kV powerlines in areas outside of, but connected to, the city. In other words, a major storm took out transmission and generation; interconnection could not save it—history then repeated itself in South Australia in 2016. 

Climate change demands a different sort of preparedness. What does preparedness look like? What does it cost? We could build a system that doesn’t fail. America alone has 160,000 miles of electrical wire that could, hypothetically, be undergrounded to the tune of $1.5 million per mile. Unfortunately, no one in this country has $240 trillion lying around. As a former CEO of one of Australia’s three largest energy companies I’m acutely aware of the challenge of re-orienting an energy giant. The most crucial reorientation, however, is not a question of technology. Rather, it is a question of how we think about risk, and how to plan for contingencies. Effective and informed ways to change systems that consider the short view of seasonality and the longer view of infrastructure. Grids must operate in a widening range of conditions. This is critical because climate change is ensuring more extremes and more unpredictable, extremes of temperature, wind, and precipitation. Small changes in chaotic systems have big consequences. 

Climate change has caused entirely new weather phenomena. Diablo winds are a new event: California is no longer subject to the Santa Ana winds alone. These winds, coupled with an extended drought season and bark beetle infestations killing trees all add up to disastrous wildfire scenarios. We need to think more critically about land management: much as the bark beetle is an invasive species, non-native eucalyptus trees were planted throughout California to provide wind breaks, but also have a tendency to dry out easily and become highly flammable. 

The devastation of the terrible fires of 2017 and 2018 could have been mitigated with better maintenance practices and design standards, sharper of system thinking, and a resistance to knee-jerk reactions. Their occurrence proved, more than anything, how easy it is to get trapped in a mental model that is no longer tracking with reality. The same could be said of Texas and its snow storms, the East Coast and its superstorms, or even Puerto Rico where the lights aren’t on a disgraceful three years later.  

However, for the average American, the future will be one governed by heavy weather. The once-in-a-generation storm will become a biannual event. Our success will depend upon our ability to think about systems, not just renewable, non-hydrocarbon energy. We need to both harden our systems and adapt them to be more resilient and reliable in the new normal of volatile weather. In short, our success will be determined by our ability to anticipate failure. 

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