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Power Grids Feel The Pressure Of Intense Storms Driven By Climate Change

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In New Orleans, electricity is back for a few neighborhoods. But much of the city is still without power after Hurricane Ida, and it may be for weeks. The local utility is facing criticism that it should have been prepared better for the storm. That's part of a wider challenge. The Biden administration is pursuing a huge build-out of electricity infrastructure, even as climate change is making storms like Ida more intense. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hurricane Ida crumpled a major transmission tower that survived Katrina 16 years ago. Building infrastructure that's strong enough is hard when the target keeps moving because storms are getting stronger. Energy consultant Alison Silverstein says utilities and their regulators can take planning cues from Murphy's law.

ALISON SILVERSTEIN: We need to assume that everything possible that could go wrong is going to go wrong simultaneously. And Murphy is always going to win.

BRADY: President Biden's climate plan includes a much bigger role for electricity - electric cars, for example. Cutting carbon footprints is easier with electricity from emission-free sources like wind, solar and nuclear. But even those have to stand up to extreme weather. Putting wires underground may seem obvious, but engineering professor Destenie Nock at Carnegie Mellon University says that won't always work in hurricane country.

DESTENIE NOCK: Where you might have undergrounded the lines to protect them from wind, putting them underground makes them more susceptible to flooding.

BRADY: Nock says it's never just one thing that's going to keep the lights on. Energy experts we interviewed agree on a few basic ideas, though. They say the grid should be more decentralized so the whole thing doesn't shut down at once. More generation out in communities, such as solar power, would accomplish that. But New Orleans utility Entergy has resisted calls for just that, to the frustration of local activists. At MIT, engineering professor Saurabh Amin says not all the fixes are technical. He says power companies also need to become more agile and do more when responding to storms.

SAURABH AMIN: The fact that some utilities are not able to sort of respond immediately is also another kind of failure, which is perhaps as drastic as the infrastructure failure itself.

BRADY: Assuming outages will happen, Amin says utilities should focus more on dispatching generators, even before a storm, to make sure important facilities and vulnerable populations get electricity restored as soon as possible. All this costs money that usually ends up in utility bills. Congress is working on major funding through infrastructure bills that could address some of these issues. They're also focused on President Biden's climate goals, including zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035. When you add all that up, Larry Gasteiger with the transmission group WIRES says it's a lot of money.

LARRY GASTEIGER: I don't know that I've actually seen a figure that comes up with a grand total for all of these together. But as you start to stitch the pieces together, the numbers become pretty eye-popping.

BRADY: Gasteiger's group estimates that just building a transmission system to handle all the new electricity demand could cost up to $90 billion over the next decade. And that does not include measures needed to make the grid more resilient against storms like Hurricane Ida. But as New Orleans residents have learned, there's a devastating cost when a storm knocks out power to your entire city.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "BORDER MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.