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Looking back won't tell us everything we need to know about grid vulnerability

Looking back won't tell us everything we need to know about grid vulnerability
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The climate crisis is growing. The pandemic is causing dramatic and sustained changes in electricity transmission. And communities everywhere are learning the hard way about their vulnerabilities to disasters. Nonetheless, the past does not tell us everything we need to know to ensure grid resilience in the face of climate change.

We already know a lot about vulnerabilities. The months-long power outages in the wake of Hurricane Maria almost certainly contributed to unnecessary deaths due to delayed or interrupted healthcare, illustrating the complex intersection of disasters, social vulnerability, medical fragility and infrastructure collapse. The fatal wildfires in California requiring public safety power shutoffs illustrate all too well the problem of aging infrastructure, which contributes to the threat and the underlying vulnerability to disasters. These events are harbingers of the future. They provide clues as to what we may face and the role of our electric infrastructure in meeting these challenges, but we cannot build the grid of the future exclusively based on the needs and vulnerabilities of the past.

Assessing the durability of the electric grid, as well as other elements of essential infrastructure against disasters, requires an understanding of historical risk, as well as simulations for a range of uncertainties that the future holds. Compelling examples include climate change projections that show excess deaths in the tens of thousands in some urban areas over the next several decades due to increasing heat and humidity, creating additional strain on electrical systems and exacerbating the consequences of outages.

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Threats from increasingly extreme weather events such as severe flooding, prolonged heat and drought, and coastal storms are coinciding with increasing reliance on electricity for daily life and for managing the growth of chronic diseases across the population. The shifting landscape of cybersecurity and the potential for attacks by state and non-state actors continue to evolve as well.

In addition to the changing threat and vulnerability landscape, we are learning more about how physical infrastructure and social vulnerabilities can exacerbate the uneven impact of a natural disaster at the community level, including the speed and degree of recovery. We also see this unevenness deepened by disaster recovery assistance programs, some of which have been shown to have less favorable outcomes for the socioeconomically disadvantaged and communities of color. Building the grid of the future requires attention to high impact, low probability events that may not actually be mere aberrations but may foretell greater catastrophes looming. 

As with any infrastructure that is built to last for decades or longer, we have the choice of viewing an uncertain future as a threat or as a key contingency in our design of the grid of the future.

A good portion of the current U.S. energy infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s. While there may have been some attempts at future-proofing the infrastructure at that time, the complexity of the threats we face today could not have been wholly understood nearly three-quarters of a century ago. Inevitably, the further out we try to predict, the more uncertain our predictions become, so how do we challenge ourselves to consider a fuller spectrum of scenarios in which threats may evolve over the coming decades?

The development of simulations playing out numerous scenarios at the outer boundaries of our uncertainty is necessary to ensure that our grid development is adaptable to the fullest possible range of potential disasters. Additionally, engaging all stakeholders is essential to ensure that the cascading social impacts of preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery efforts have the intended effects across the whole community. The need for input from community partners and advisory boards in the design and conduct of exercises and simulations cannot be overstated.

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Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), the utility that serves Chicago and northern Illinois, has partnered with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to conduct just such a simulation within the utility’s Bronzeville Community Microgrid to better understand the benefits of investments in grid resiliency for social vulnerability during disaster recovery. This upcoming exercise will provide important insights into what the grid of the future might look like. 

Nationally, FEMA has already identified the power grid as a lifeline for communities that is essential for health, safety and economic security. The critical role of electricity in recent major disasters reaffirms its importance in sustaining civil society, as well as illuminates the consequences that loom when the sustainment of this lifeline falls short. We cannot afford to wait for future disasters to reveal themselves to begin preparing for them. Coupling a thorough understanding of the past with a rigorous exploration of potential future scenarios will ensure we build a more adaptable and sustainable grid of the future.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press.

Aleksi Paaso is director of distribution planning, smart grid, and innovation at Commonwealth Edison Co.