White House warns of rising threat to power grid from ‘extreme weather’

Power outages from severe weather events have cost the nation an average of $18 billion to $33 billion annually, according to a new Obama administration report that stresses the threat of climate change.

The report, which was prepared by the White House and the Energy Department, argues the nation needs to strengthen the power grid in response to the "increasing incidence of severe weather."

"These costs are expected to rise as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and other extreme weather events," the report says.

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"Developing a smarter, more resilient electric grid is one step that can be taken now to ensure the welfare of the millions of current and future Americans who depend on the grid for reliable power."

Weather-related power outages impose costs in numerous ways, according to the report.

“Severe weather is the number one cause of power outages in the United States and costs the economy billions of dollars a year in lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production, inconvenience and damage to grid infrastructure,” it states.

President Obama has increasingly turned his focus to climate change in his second term, most visibly with the Environmental Protection Agency's aggressive move to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants.

But while vowing steps to curb emissions, the White House is also making the case to increase the nation’s resilience to climate change — including steps to modernize the aging power grid.

The report touts the $4.5 billion in the 2009 stimulus law for “smart grid” technologies, but says more investment and collaboration from multiple levels of government and the private sector are needed.

For instance, officials noted that Obama is urging Congress to fund a $200 million "race to the top" grant program for states on energy efficiency and grid modernization.

The White House report said a number of strategies are needed to protect the power grid, ranging from exercises to identify hazards; working with utilities to harden their infrastructure against high winds and floods; and wider deployment of technologies that alert utilities to outages and automatically reroute power.

—This story was updated at 10:36 a.m and 11:20 a.m.