Experts Scrutinize US Power Grid's Vulnerability to Severe Weather

By Kristen Rodman, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
April 19, 2014; 3:23 AM ET
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Experts across the nation are searching for plausible solutions to the defects of the nation's over-stressed and antiquated power system before severe weather season takes full rein.

An aging infrastructure combined with the vulnerability of natural disasters have intensified the threats against and effectiveness of the U.S. grid in recent years.

As the leading cause of power outages in the U.S., severe weather poses the largest risk to the grid's operations resulting in 66 percent of the power disruptions across the country from 2008 to 2012, according to Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Massoud Amin.

Impacts of severe weather on the grid cost the nation between $18 billion and $33 billion per year with wind storms, hurricanes and severe storms causing the most consumer disruptions each year, Amin said.

Only four years ago, in 2010, extreme weather set a record number of major U.S. transmission outages with severe storms generating 150 of the year's total 247 massive power outage events.

In an attempt to combat some of the stress put on the archaic power grid, experts are searching for feasible alternatives, including below-ground power and smart grids.

Understanding the U.S. Power Grid

The operation and day-to-day functionality of the U.S. power grid can be explained more simply in comparison to the human heart, according to Amin.

The flow of power begins with a customer who turns on a light, when that light is turned on millions of electrons travel instantaneously to provide electricity to that room. These electrons travel from more than 10,000 generators across the United States and into four major subregions, taking the path of least resistance, or the power lines with the least traffic.

Motorists on highway 69, south of Pittsburg, Kan., drive around downed power lines on Friday morning, May 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Gullett)

The electric current is reduced to a lower charge so that power can be distributed safely for use in a home or business, etc.

However, when hundreds of people go to turn on the light at the same time, the system must work harder to deliver more electricity without delay. This process can be compared to the way the human body pumps blood faster through veins and arteries to the heart in a stressful situation like exercise, versus circulation to the heart when the body is at rest.

"Think of a massive scale system that has to work nearly perfectly," said Amin.

Building Below-Ground Power

With above-ground power at the mercy of Mother Nature, some countries are looking to below-ground power to neutralize the grid's susceptibility to weather. China, for example, has built underground tunnels reinforced with concrete to house their power sources.

"It makes sense for urban areas that do not want to see wires exposed to falling trees in neighborhoods," Amin said.

Portions of the country, including parts of California, have already put underground power systems into place.

Despite the benefits of below-ground power, there are some significant downsides as cost and flooding pose major risks to this type of infrastructure.

"The cost of burying things underground is seven to 12 times more than above ground," Amin said. "We did an assessment for the state of North Carolina about four years ago and to bury everything underground would cost about $40 billion."

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Aside from the expense of building below-ground power, weather can nevertheless harm this type of system.

"If in a flood zone and you have an underground flood and it is [the grid] not protected, then you are causing more trouble," Amin said.

Following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La., in 2005, the city moved some of their power sources above ground, as many backup generators were ruined when flooding occurred in basements during the storm.

Despite its flaws, below-ground power can be extremely effective if risk is accessed and various solutions are imposed in different areas dependent on the specific risks of that particular area.

"There is no cookie-cutter solution for the nation; you have one or two solutions everywhere," Amin said. "The solutions have to depend on the location and what risk we are mitigating."

Some areas may be able to combine both below-ground and above-ground systems for a more effective and costly solution.

In North Carolina, accessing the power system based upon risk, or determining which parts of the state vulnerable to flooding and disasters, could reduce the cost of a more successful system from $40 billion to $3 billion by using a combination of both types of power systems, Amin said.

The Long-Term Outlook for the Power Grid

Due to aging and vulnerability every year, change needs to be enacted, according to Amin.

"The grid must become stronger, more secure and more resilient," Amin said.

In this Nov. 1, 2012, file photo, much of lower Manhattan remains dark, as viewed from the darkened Manhattan side of the pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

Advanced grid meter infrastructure, the rebuilding of underground substations to be above ground on elevated surfaces, proactive risk assessment by region, better leadership in the public and private sectors and unity between federal and local jurisdiction are the principal issues that need to be addressed in order to enhance the grid's ability, explained Amin.

Currently, the smart grid system is the main proponent for working to fix the system.

These smart grids can continually monitor themselves, search for potential problems and allow isolation when portions of the system fail. Already, Amin stated that, money has been allocated to begin this process but that is only one step toward a solution.

Multiple changes need to be implemented to make the grid more reliable.

"To really enable a smarter grid we need to invest," Amin said.

Empowering a stronger, smarter grid could result in multiple economic, environmental and electrical benefits to the nation.

With this grid improvement, carbon emissions could be reduced by integrating renewable energy sources into the system, rapid restoration would be possible by having a stronger backbone, more intelligence and security and the U.S. would be better able to self-heal, according to Amin.

"Long-term that would save us both in terms of outage costs and impacts on society," Amin said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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