The Electric Grid in a Time of Climate Disasters: Communities Show the Way

Three major electricity grid disasters in just over a year are exemplary of the havoc that climate extremes are causing and what needs to be done about it: (i) the howling winds of the 2020 derecho, when hundreds of thousands lost power in Iowa and Illinois in August 2020; (ii) the February 2021 breakdown of much of the Texas grid in the maelstrom of a winter polar vortex; and (iii) the failure of all eight transmission lines supplying a major city, New Orleans, and a near-total blackout in the midst of the miseries of the most intense recorded hurricane to hit Louisiana, Hurricane Ida on August 29, 2021. Such catastrophes often compound the miseries of those who already suffer disproportionately from economic, social, and racial injustices, much as the Covid-19 pandemic has also done.

In addition to these debacles, there has also been a startlingly different kind of failure: the periodic, deliberate shutdowns of sections of the grid to prevent fires starting at transmission towers in fire-vulnerable areas in California, which is in the midst of a deep, historic drought. The reason? Transmission-tower-related fires have caused death and destruction in the state on more than one occasion. Deliberate black-outs and periodic misery or death and destruction by grid-triggered fire — those are the current electrical choices in large parts of the country’s most populous state.

A large part of the vulnerability arises from the very nature of centralized grid infrastructure. Fossil gas power plants compete for fuel with heating buildings in the grip of extreme cold; nuclear power plants must actually be shut down for safety reasons if there is no grid electricity supplying them, as was the case with the Waterford 3 plant in Louisiana during Hurricane Ida. Large power plants can deliver no electrons when transmission lines are down and distribution lines lie prone in flooded streets, tangled in fallen trees. Homes and businesses that have emergency generators depend on gas stations functioning, but no electricity means no power at the fuel pump.

The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Nation in northern California showed the way technically and socially in mid-October 2019 when PG&E, the largest investor-owned utility in California (and also the United States), preemptively shut off power to millions of people to reduce fire risk from its facilities. The Tribal Nation’s microgrid (ironically helped by PG&E), with 1,500 solar panels and battery storage, became a haven for people and, as it turns out, a savior of fish: “As one of the only gas stations in the county with power, the reservation provided diesel to United Indian Health Services to refrigerate their medications and to the Mad River Fish Hatchery to keep their fish alive. The local newspaper used a hotel conference room to put out the next day’s paper. Area residents stopped by to charge their cell phones,” according to Jefferson Public Radio. An estimated ten thousand neighbors of the Nation came for gasoline and other supplies on a single day.

Hurricane Ida holds the same message. Some largely African American and Vietnamese American communities near Lake Ponchartrain had opposed a new fossil gas-fired electricity generating plant proposed by the utility Entergy; they wanted local solar and storage instead. The New Orleans City Council rejected their idea. The communities suffered the pollution from the plant when it operated and the blackout when it failed during Ida. In contrast, a microgrid on the roof of a new mixed housing development (29 affordable and 21 market-rate apartments), conceived after Hurricane Katrina, provided at least some electricity for its residents amidst near-total gloom.

Microgrids are much more than emergency power supplies. They operate efficiently with the grid, exporting and importing power from it in normal times; they also provide resilience by automatically “islanding” — disconnecting from the grid — during outages. During such times they function as small, very local, isolated grids – hence the term. This local electricity system provides power for essential services during emergencies — shelter, fuel, refrigeration for food and medicine….

The supply chain failures during the pandemic and recent massive grid failures have shown that market “efficiency” defined by profit in normal times alone is economically disastrous, even deadly. It does not provide the safety, security, and health that our climate predicament demands. Distributed renewable energy resources, including microgrids with solar and battery storage, and preferably also seasonal thermal storage of heat and cold for emergency shelter spaces, must be in the center of simultaneous mitigation and adaptation: reducing carbon dioxide emissions while enabling communities to be more secure during the weather upheavals that have become more frequent and intense.

Congress and the Biden administration are creating a vast infrastructure program that will include substantial funding for climate and energy. Grid resilience, with distributed solar energy and storage as their primary foundations, must be at the center of the investment strategy; microgrids, including public purpose microgrids, must be at the core. Fortunately, the administration’s Solar Futures study, issued in September 2021, recognizes the potential of both solar energy and of microgrids in building resilience.

Lessons from repeated grid failures since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 devastated much of the northeastern coast of the United States, show that communities often have more wisdom than large profit-centered utilities trying to hold-on to a failing and dangerous business-as-usual model. The infrastructure program should fund and empower communities, especially those that already suffer disproportionate harms and vulnerabilities, to help us all to a safer place in a time of climate disasters.

Photo Credit: GoodNewsNetwork.org