The US Electric Grid: Can’t Swim but Lives on a Boat

Oct. 30, 2015
You might say the U.S. electric grid is like someone who can’t swim but lives on a boat. A big chunk of the grid is located in coastal areas. It’s vulnerable to flooding, and the problem is getting worse.

You might say the U.S. electric grid is like someone who can’t swim but lives on a boat. A big chunk of the grid is located in coastal areas. It’s vulnerable to flooding, and the problem is getting worse.

Water and electricity don’t play well together. Flooding leads to outages and is likely to cause even more as sea levels rise.

That’s the word from a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Lights Out? Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help.”

“The effects of such outages can be devastating. As arrestingly demonstrated by recent storms like hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), lack of electricity following severe weather events can be another and separate disaster, triggering urgent patient evacuations from darkened hospitals, millions of gallons of raw sewage flowing into local waterways as treatment plants go dark, and hours-long lines at the few area service stations able to keep pumps running,” said the report.

Part of the problem, of course, is that a large share of the U.S. population — about one-third — lives by the sea. Where we live we build electrical infrastructure.

The study examined five such places: Delaware Valley, southeastern Virginia, the South Carolina Low Country, southeastern Florida, and the central Gulf Coast. USC looked at how power plants and substations in these areas would fare under various storm scenarios if sea levels rise as projected in 2030, 2050 and 2070.

By 2050, many coastal are likely to see daily high tides more than a foot above present levels, and greater storm surges, says the report.

But here’s the really bad news. We don’t have to wait until 2030 to see the folly of so much electrical infrastructure built near so much water.

“Electricity infrastructure in all five regions already displays significant exposure to storm surge from major storms today,” the study says. For example, about 70 percent of substations are exposed in the central Gulf Coast, a lesser 16 percent in southeastern Florida.

It will get worse, of course, if sea levels rise as expected. Southeastern Florida could see a doubling of major substations exposed to flooding from a Category 3 storm by 2050 and tripling by 2070.

Electrical outages aren’t just inconvenient. They do economic damage. Just a 30-minute interruption could cost a medium or large business or factory more than $15,000. An outage that lasts over two-thirds of a day racks up a $165,000 loss for the same kind of companies, the report says.

UCS recommends several strategies to prepare for coastal flooding of electric grid infrastructure, particularly more focus on developing local energy: microgrids, combined heat and power and renewables plus storage.

These technologies can supply power when the rest of the grid fails; they don’t require the long transmission lines prone to failure during storms. They also tend to be less reliant on fuel supply chains that can be disrupted during storms. And they can often be started up quicker than central grid infrastructure.

The full report is available for free download here.

How can coastal areas better protect themselves from power outages? Share your thoughts on our LinkedIn Group, Community Microgrids and Local Energy.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

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