News Column

Power Grid Still at Risk From Climate Change

August 13, 2013
alternative energy

On the eve of the 10-year-anniversary of a historic power outage that began in Ohio and affected 50 million people in eight states and parts of Canada, the Obama administration is warning that the power grid remains at risk.

Although the power outage on Aug. 14, 2003, was started by a computer glitch and an overgrown tree, the Department of Energy said in a report released yesterday that disastrous weather is the primary cause of widespread power outages, and that climate change is likely to make that problem worse.

Between 2003 and 2012, the report said, an estimated 679 widespread power outages occurred because of severe weather. Such outages, it said, cost the nation billions of dollars and disrupt the lives of millions of Americans.

Last year, when superstorm Sandy led all other storms in destruction, weather-related power outages cost the nation between $27 billion and $52 billion. And a report by the Congressional Research Service estimates that weather-related outages cost the nation between $25 billion to $70 billion annually, including the cost of lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production and damage to the grid.

The administration called for, and received, $4.5 billion for electrical upgrades in the 2009 stimulus bill, contending that such investments made it easier for Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to come back on line after superstorm Sandy.

Eaton, a diversified power-management corporation that tracks blackouts, found that the nation saw 65 power outages affecting 50,000 or more people in 2012, a decline from 2011, when the nation saw 109 outages affecting more than 50,000.

But, Eaton said, Ohio endured 91 power outages last year -- 29 caused by weather events or falling trees. Similar circumstances caused 52 power outages in Ohio in 2011 and 38 in 2010.

The White House argues that the problem is compounded by aging power lines. The average age of the nation's power plants is more than 30 years, and 70 percent of the grid's transmission lines and power transformers are now more than 25 years old.

The 2003 blackout was caused by overgrown trees that shut down a power line in northern Ohio. The problem was compounded by a computer glitch at FirstEnergy, an Akron-based company, causing it to not detect and quickly react to the outage. The problem quickly cascaded as other power lines became overloaded.

The company said that the grid has been strengthened since, with the industry adopting new standards for transmission reliability. FirstEnergy, meanwhile, is building a $45 million transmission center in Akron that will replace its current transmission control center. It should be completed by the end of the year.

Scott Moore, vice president of transmission engineering and project services for Columbus-based American Electric Power, said that in the past decade, utility companies have increased training for staff members and begun using new tools to prevent similar blackouts.

They're also doing a better job of trimming trees, which could help prevent weather-related blackouts. And they're working to update outdated infrastructure.

"There's no guarantee," Moore said, noting that "acts of God" cannot be prevented. "But I think there has been a major improvement in the system."

jwehrman@dispatch.com

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(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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Source: Copyright Columbus Dispatch (OH) 2013


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