Resilience Natural Disasters

Burying just 5 percent of power lines can improve resilience in hurricane-prone regions

“Considering this kind of compounding of multiple climate hazards and infrastructure vulnerability is an important direction both for the research community and for decision-making.”
Power lines.

Story at a glance

  • As extreme weather events become more intense and compound one another, more climate-resilient infrastructure is needed to better protect vulnerable populations.

  • A new study shows that strategically burying just 5 percent of powerlines in Harris County, Texas, would drastically reduce the number of residents affected by hurricane and heat wave power outages.

  • This is important, as many who rely on home medical devices or air conditioning are at a higher risk of poor health outcomes during outages.

Extreme weather events will likely become more common as climate change progresses. These threats to infrastructure and human life put vulnerable communities at risk and underscore the need for improved energy resilience. 

One such solution, according to researchers at Princeton University’s Engineering School, would be to bury short sections of power lines in at-risk regions. Using Harris County, Texas, as an example, the team found strategically burying just 5 percent of power lines could reduce the number of residents affected by hurricane and heat wave-related outages by half. Specifically, lines near main distribution points would need to be buried. 

According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, “A warmer and more moist atmosphere over the oceans makes it likely that the strongest hurricanes will be more intense, produce more rainfall, and possibly be larger. In addition, global warming causes sea level to rise, which increases the amount of seawater, along with more rainfall, that is pushed on to shore during coastal storms.”

Individuals living in coastal regions are also more likely to experience subsequent heat waves during power outages, spelling concern for those who rely on air conditioning to combat heat-related health effects. 

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“Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 both had heat waves following them after they destroyed the power distribution network,” explained co-author Ning Lin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, in a statement. “For this compound hazard, the risk has been increasing, and it is now happening.”

To carry out their investigation, the researchers assessed the combined hazards of hurricanes and heat waves under a “business-as-usual” climate change scenario. Under this model, the risk of individuals experiencing at least one hurricane-black-out-heat wave lasting more than five days within the next two decades would increase 23 times by 2100. In other words, the present risk of this scenario is 0.8 percent, which grows to a future risk of 18.2 percent by the end of the century. 

However, burying 5 percent of power lines would bring this risk back down to 11.3 percent. 

Harris County is home to Houston and borders Trinity Bay. It also has “the highest population density along the Gulf Coast and, as located in the subtropics, may face a disproportionally large increase in heat waves and [tropical cyclones] in a warming climate,” authors wrote.

The area also made national headlines in February 2021 when a winter storm knocked out the state’s electric grid operator and millions went without access to electricity. Texas is unique in that the state operates its own power grid, unlike the rest of the contiguous U.S. which relies on two separate grids: the Eastern and Western Interconnections. 

Researchers modeled recovery scenarios based on past hurricanes Harvey (2017) and Ike (2008). They found residents living in rural areas face a greater risk of extended power outages.

Current practices involve mostly burying lines at random, Lin explained. But more strategic burying can improve efficiency and better reduce risk. 

Based on the findings, city planners can also identify which residents are at greater risk of hurricane heat-wave power outages and better target interventions. Researchers stressed the importance of increased collaboration among climate modelers, engineers and city planners to better protect the nearly 30 percent of U.S. residents who live in coastal regions. 

“Climate can drive multiple hazards with compound effects that we don’t understand, and that may be new to us in the future,” Lin noted. “Considering this kind of compounding of multiple climate hazards and infrastructure vulnerability is an important direction both for the research community and for decision-making.”

The team hopes to scale up the analysis to whole states in the future.