From Scott Carlberg

Hurricane Dorian fades away. Not the memory, though, and what could have been if there was a major direct hit. This is worth noting now because September 10 is traditionally the most active day of the hurricane season. Let’s mark the day with a message about the electric system.

NOAA image above. Dorian off Cape Hatteras. (Feature image on blog – Dorian off New England, Sept. 7) 

What is uncommon may now be common in weather. Record-setting storms. “In 169 years of record keeping, there have been only 35 Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic. Five of those catastrophic storms happened in the last four years, including Dorian.” (Source)

Skirting the U.S. coast rather than a big, head-on direct hit made a big difference. Dorian’s strongest winds never got the the U.S. mainland coast.

Power outages happen in storms, and more big storms will come. Inevitable. But the frequency and duration of outages in storms can be lessened.

With Dorian, there were power outages, and many were restored quickly:

  • “NC power outages drop from 231,000 to 76,500 as Hurricane Dorian heads out to sea.” This headline ran while parts of the storm was still battering parts of North Carolina.
  • “The South Carolina Emergency Management Division reported close to 185,000 outages across the state by early Friday. The number had improved to about 84,000 by about 4:15 p.m. Friday.” (Source)
  • “Dominion Energy crews have restored power to 92 percent of the customers … as of mid-afternoon Saturday.”  (Source)

These good power restoration times happened because there was no huge direct hit, and also because of good planning. “The electric industry nationwide made $120 billion in capital expenditures in 2018, which includes storm preparedness and recovery to harden the grid.” (Source) More needs to be planned and invested.

Metal power poles replacing wood poles in NC.

Two pillars of improvement can make our power system withstand a fiercer Mother Nature:

  • Smarten up. As our grid becomes more digital it becomes easier to analyze and fix problems, even self-heal disruptions. Going away are the days when a line worker has to drive and eyeball a problem. Problems are now found on-line and the workers gets to work. Fast.
  • Harden the system. Make the grid better withstand bad weather. For instance, wood poles can be replaced with concrete or metal poles. Vegetation management keeps trees from taking down lines.

The storms’ message for Carolina power customers is like the movie line: “I’ll be back.” There will be a direct hit in the future of a big storm. The costs of these events are significant in real dollars and as part of our states’ economies. See our further reading, below.

Everyone involved, including regulators, special interests, and citizens – it’s time for redoubled teamwork and big infrastructure decisions in the energy industry to best serve customers and their future power needs.

“NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) tracks U.S. weather and climate events that have great economic and societal impacts. Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 241 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index, as of January 2019). The cumulative cost for these 241 events exceeds $1.6 trillion. (Source)

During 2018, the U.S. experienced a very active year of weather and climate disasters. In total, the U.S. was impacted by 14 separate billion-dollar disaster events: two tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two winter storms, drought, and wildfires. The past three years (2016-2018) have been historic, with the annual average number of billion-dollar disasters being more than double the long-term average. The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to a combination of increased exposure, vulnerability, and the fact the climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters.”

“The South/Central and Southeast regions of the U.S., including the Caribbean U.S. territories, have suffered the highest cumulative damage costs reflecting the severity and widespread vulnerability of those regions to a variety of weather and climate events. In addition to the highest number of billion-dollar disasters experienced, Texas also leads the U.S. in total cumulative costs (~$250 billion) from billion-dollar disasters since 1980. Florida is the second-leading state in total costs since 1980 (~$225 billion), largely the result of destructive hurricane impacts.” (Source)