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The US electric grid — climate change's least talked about victim

The US electric grid — climate change's least talked about victim
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Recently, Tropical Storm Isaias smattered the East Coast, bringing with it high winds, lightning and severe showers and, of course, power outages. The fact is, our national electrical grid is not up to the task of handling extreme weather, and hasn’t been for a long time. In fact, no infrastructural relic may be as vulnerable as the U.S. electric grid. As climate change escalates and disrupts weather patterns, our country must update the grid, immediately, or risk losing not only power, but lives.  

This is not the first time, nor the last, extreme weather has exposed infrastructural weakness. In 2017, eight senior citizens died in Florida when Hurricane Irma knocked out power. We don’t know much about the horrific conditions these men and women faced in their final moments, most probably combating sweltering temperatures with sheer will and pictures of loved ones solely for company, hoping against all odds that help would soon appear, but tragically never came. 

What we do know is when the grid fails, those on the margins of society — the elderly, the poor, the disenfranchised and the forgotten — bear the brunt of the impacts.

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The U.S. electric grid is roughly more than 100 years old by some Department of Energy estimates. But what was, and in some way still is, a sociotechnical marvel of engineering and a testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the human mind, is but a relic, aging and in disrepair. Thus, despite its stature, it remains vulnerable to extreme weather — which, as climate change progresses, is becoming increasingly exposed. 

As wildfires burn longer and hotter, as heat waves continue to shatter records, as historical drought ravishes water supplies, as warmer waters become more likely to conjure up vicious hurricanes and tropical storms, the national conversation increasingly turns away from a greater sense of connected urgency undergirding the constellation of these events to treating extreme weather events as singular apparitions instead of as a threaded, cohesive pattern, which when seen as a tapestry reveals the compounded horrors of climate change.

A victim of this change, though seldom discussed, is the aging electric grid.  

47 large-scale power outages-those with more than 50,000 customers affected for 1 hour or more — occurred — one attributed to a natural disaster in Utah, the other were caused by severe weather events, with an estimated 6 million customers directly impacted, per data analyzed from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) for the 2019 calendar year. The lion’s share of these documented outages (98 percent) were caused by severe weather.  

Impacted by power outages are hospitals, schools, retirement communities, water treatment centers, households, etc., who all hold in trust the fact that they rely on the electric grid for every-day life-sustaining tasks.

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Often power outages occur because of severe weather damage to above ground transmission lines, the Midwest and the eastern regions of the U.S maybe especially vulnerable because of the prevalence of above-ground lines in these areas. In essence, because the electric infrastructure is above ground, it is often highly vulnerable to severe weather like heavy rain, snow, ice and violent winds. One of the most frequent interlopers of transmission disruption among coastal states — the hurricane.

When hurricanes make landfall, a triple combination-packed punch of water, wind and waves strikes, grid vulnerabilities magnify and expose the nested fragility within the sociotechnical system. When Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast with unrelenting wind, water and waves in 2012, an estimated 8 million households were without power for long stretches of time. Lack of power stretched all the way to Michigan.

As sure as there will be more hurricanes on the horizon, more power outages will ensue. And yes, people will die.  

That is, of course, if we do not tackle the bigger battle with climate change head-on, which regardless of what you may believe in, is a battle our infrastructure is losing, and losing miserably. If we are stubborn enough not to recognize climate change as the silent killer residing among us, we must at the very least work on improving grid resiliency.

Electricity, the boon of the electric grid, is embedded in our daily lives. We must recognize that it is not a matter of if, but when our electrical infrastructure fails that should concern us. And when this happens, we will be severely incapacitated. 

The grid is a relic. It is displaced in time. It was simply not meant to handle the large-scale fluctuations in environmental conditions we are seeing as climate change unleashes its wrath. 

Again, we must recognize this and adapt both the grid and our mindsets, accordingly.

Anvil, hammer, ingenuity, modern-technology and planning need to be marshalled once more and as strongly as when they were united in kind to create the grid — so that we may modernize the grid and make it resilient to handle the extreme weather of the present.  

There was no moral outrage over the eight dead in a senior citizen home in Florida three years ago. The story went from headline to footnote, without much discussion of the role of extreme-weather related outages or grid vulnerabilities.

But the additional deaths we can anticipate in the coming years will add up to far more than a footnote. We must ask our presidential candidates to make the electric grid a priority, in so doing, we have to refuse to allow climate change to claim any more victims — neither another set of eight nor the electric grid.  

Urooj Raja is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder currently conducting research on the human dimensions of climate change. Previously she was a research analyst at Climate Central.   Please follow her on Twitter @uroojra.