The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has a busy start, and forecasters say it is likely to be as active as it was last year, when thousands were without power for weeks after Hurricanes Laura, Zeta, Cristobal and Delta hit the Gulf of South.
Climate studies show that a more active hurricane season is just one of the new normalities that climate change brings to the region, and with it greater threats to the power grid.
Hurricanes are the biggest threat to power grids, which have already faced a slew of extreme weather events – like polar eddies like the one that paralyzed water and electricity in much of the region this spring, more intense rains and stronger storms – the Department of Energy says. The number of blackouts is also increasing.
Power grids were not built to withstand these increasing threats, and the US energy infrastructure is aging and unreliable. In some parts of the country, energy companies are diversifying power sources, strengthening grids and strengthening infrastructure.
In the Gulf South, it is up to each and every energy company to develop their own plans to weather the mounting weather extremes, and it is not clear whether they will. State regulators also do not require these companies to develop resilience plans.
Extreme weather and climate change can potentially affect all components of the nation's energy system, from the production and distribution of fuels (petroleum, coal, and natural gas) to electricity generation, transmission, and demand.
“A grid pushed to the abyss”
Power outages are not only an inconvenience but also a health hazard. Extreme heat causes illness and death.
Scientists warn that storms will become more intense and cause more frequent and longer-lasting power outages. Much of the power grid was built above ground and many of the power plants are on the coast.
In addition, a study found that 70% of power plants in the south are flood-prone and their equipment also ages quickly, according to Julie McNamara, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists
“When you combine that underinvestment with changing climates and increased exposure to severe weather, you see a web that has come to the brink and is beginning to fail,” said McNamara.
Photo provided by Union of Concerned Scientists Scientist
This animated GIF shows changes in the potential depth of flooding in New Orleans and part of the Gulf Coast from a Category 3 hurricane from 2012 to 2070. It also shows where exposed and unexposed power plants are in the area on the flood map.
The latest report from the American Society of Civil Engineers rates the US power system a D. The network is expensive to repair. Hardening equipment, building power plants, and preparing for sea level rise cost money.
A bill that would provide more funding to strengthen the US power grid is working its way through Congress. The Biden administration's controversial infrastructure bill would also allocate billions for electrical transmission and network resilience, but for now, states are largely on their own.
Winter storms bring weaknesses to light
Some companies are preparing for the threats to come.
After Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in 2012 and left more than 8 million people without power, New York energy company Con Edison created a comprehensive resilience plan that included $ 1 billion to expand its infrastructure and prepare for more extreme weather conditions provided.
“Those who feel they are best equipped for the future are the ones who realize that change is here,” said McNamara.
There are two major energy companies in the south of the Gulf – Entergy and Southern Company – that serve most of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Both companies are subject to their state's public service commissions, which regulate them.
In Mississippi, the state's Public Service Commission, led by Commissioner Brent Bailey, is investigating why their power grid collapsed during February's winter storms that left more than 50,000 people without power for weeks.
Photo provided by Entergy
An Entergy crew member is working to restore power to a neighborhood in Vicksburg, Mississippi after winter storm Uri swept the area on February 19, 2021.
“That really showed the lack of maintenance,” said Bailey. “This exposed the weaknesses of these systems.”
For the investigation, the Mississippi Public Service Commission hired a consultant to review the power outages and make recommendations within the next three months. Bailey hopes that such a draft will make the state more competitive in funding the US energy infrastructure bailout.
However, he said they are not asking energy companies to make climate plans. While winter storms and extreme weather are worsening in the south, Bailey doesn't think this is related to climate change.
How companies want to improve
Public service officers from the three states provided lists of some of the things they encouraged companies to do, such as working with other energy companies in emergencies and inspecting their masts and substations.
Neither Entergy nor Southern Company agreed to an interview. Both said they were planning more extreme weather, but there isn't much evidence that they are preparing their grids or investing heavily in alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.
Last year's storms cost Entergy $ 2 billion which will eventually be passed on to installment payers. Entergy's investor reports also state that the company is preparing for climate change, although the company's focus is on reducing CO2 emissions.
A spokesman for Southern Company, the largest operator in Mississippi and Alabama, said it was investing $ 13 billion in capital improvements for its transmission and distribution infrastructure. The company is also focused on reducing its emissions.
In a letter sent this March to Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc., which oversees several utility companies in Mississippi and Louisiana, including Entergy, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell called for quick and timely transmission upgrades to address further weather-related power outages impede.
“New Orleans cannot continue to suffer major blackouts that slow our economy and harm our citizens … the city must prepare for a 21st century climate and energy system,” wrote Cantrell.
Regulators say they are encouraging energy companies to prepare, but climate plans are not mandatory. And without a plan, life without electricity will increase with the storms in the south of the Gulf.
“If you don't have a plan to rebuild better,” warned McNamara, “you'll just go back to building the way you were, which means you will pour money into a bottomless pit.”
Grid life works for some, not all
Given the uncertainty and increasing power outages, some are preparing for a life off the grid. When tens of thousands in Alabama were without power that spring, Danny and Leslie Fox simply turned their generator on.
Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Danny and Leslie Fox have been preparing for power outages on their rural Alabama homestead for years by investing in generators and water reservoirs, and each growing and growing their own food. They agreed to my calling them “prepper”.
They live in a rural area north of Mobile, where they raise a menagerie of rabbits, quails, pigs, goats and chickens. Many of her friends were without power, so they invited her out for dinner and a charging station.
“We had nice cold air and we had a refrigerator and we had a freezer and everything else you should have,” said Danny Fox. “Always have a backup and no matter what it is – whether electricity, food, water, accommodation – always a backup.”
Fox's advice, however, is easier said than done. Not everyone can afford to be a prepper, and most people live in cities and rely on electricity companies for their jobs.
“We cannot leave everyone alone to hope that individuals can protect themselves from power outages,” said Simon Mahan, director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association.
Even if you can produce your own electricity, Mahan said, “If the grocery store down the street doesn't have electricity, you won't be buying groceries.”
The Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local audiences.
This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between WWNO in New Orleans, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, and NPR.