Since the 1900s, electricity has become an integral part of our lives, determining our access to warmth, food, communication, safety, and health. The weather, however, can greatly affect our access to electricity, especially when we may need it the most. An analysis conducted by Climate Central found that there was a 67% increase in weather-related power outages since 2000 in the United States, reflecting the inability of the aging electrical grid to withstand increasingly extreme weather events. Both renewable and non-renewable energy are vulnerable to effects of the weather. How does it affect energy generation and transmission, and what can be done to improve it?
According to Climate Central, between 2003 and 2012, 80% of large-scale power outages were caused by severe weather. Out of these instances, 59% were caused by storms and severe weather such as heavy rains and thunderstorms; 20% by ice storms and cold weather; 18% by hurricanes and tropical storms; and 3% and 2% by tornadoes, and extreme heat and wildfires respectively. With a large majority of power outages caused by weather events, it is crucial to create a system that can hold up against them and recover as soon as possible.
How does weather affect the generation and distribution of electricity?
A majority of power lines in America are above ground making them vulnerable to weather and the elements. During storms and hurricanes, power line poles are susceptible to breaking and falling due to strong winds, or having branches and trees fall onto the power lines, disrupting the transmission of power. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, 8 million people faced power outages with disruption caused by wind or flood damage, or preemptive shut downs by power companies to preserve the electrical system. In 2018, 1.7 million people faced electricity outages caused by Hurricane Michael. Oftentimes it can take a few days for power to be restored, leaving people and emergency services vulnerable during these times.
Ice storms can also cause damage to power lines as ice accumulates on them and makes them easier to break. If equipment is not designed to operate at certain temperatures, energy generation can be impeded. During the unprecedented cold weather that Texas faced, equipment at powerplants froze as they were not fortified against frigid temperatures, leaving millions without power. Extreme temperatures can also increase the demand on the electrical grid as people switch on extra heating or air conditioning to cope, putting a lot of pressure on the grid.
Renewable energy sources are not impervious to extreme weather conditions either. Some studies have shown that the electrical efficiency and power output of solar panels can also be negatively affected by higher temperatures. Not to mention when there is no sunlight at all for panels to harvest. Wind turbines can be damaged by winds stronger than what they are designed to handle.
What can be done to fortify the electrical grid against extreme weather?
With our electrical supply so greatly dependent on the weather, it is critical to have a system that can respond and withstand the pressure, especially in times of emergency.
Creating smart grids is one way to begin strengthening the grid. With the help of smart technology, there can be faster communication between the grid and power plants in detecting disruptions and allowing service providers to reroute power if necessary as soon as possible. It would also facilitate the monitoring of energy demand, so power plants can better respond to needs and make the decisions needed to meet demand while protecting the integrity of the grid.
Diversifying energy sources is also an important way to better ensure continuous availability of electricity. If one source gets affected by the weather, like a lack of sun hindering the generation of solar energy, other sources can step in and fill in the gaps.
Energy storage and localizing the grid is crucial in creating resilient systems and responding to energy needs in times of emergency. Grid storage would provide areas with a source of back up electricity when power plants and energy generators fail or are taken offline. With grids and storage controlled at a local level, areas would be able to continue to meet demand even if power lines or transmission towers are damaged. In this way, grid storage can act as a buffer, reducing the possibility or length of time people face power outages.
While people can’t control the weather, they can have control over how it affects us and our electrical systems. Creating a resilient and reliable power grid can better prepare areas to deal with extreme weather, avoid power outages, and ensure that critical services remain online during emergency situations.
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