A crew from MidAmerican Energy, a power company based in Iowa, helps restore power in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Residents and utility companies are continuing to clean up after severe winds hit the Wasatch Front on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
The aging electrical grid is failing as extreme weather events hit states like Utah, Oregon and California
SALT LAKE CITY — Electricity has felt like a precious resource for people across the West lately.
Hurricane level winds knocked down lines leaving over 150,000 people in northern Utah without power. In Oregon and California, power was shut off as a last resort to prevent potentially severed power lines from sparking wildfires. Last month, a heat wave led to rolling blackouts across California.
Humanity may have figured out how to build a functional jetpack, created phones that comprehend human voices, and learned how to edit genes, but maintaining the power grid in the face of increasingly extreme weather events remains an unsolved problem.
As Gregory Reed, director of the Energy GRID Institute wrote in the Hill, “Overhauling the power grid would be an enormous endeavor — a modern-day equivalent of building the 1940s highway system across the country — but it is necessary.”
By one estimate, fixing the electrical grid would cost about $5 trillion.
Why does the electricity go out when a storm or wildfire hits? And what are states doing to prepare for a world where wildfires, heat and stronger hurricanes are becoming the new normal?
The aging grid
In the 2017 infrastructure report card, an analysis conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers every four years, America’s energy system earned a dismal D+. One reason is that many of the country’s power lines were built in the 1950s and 60s and only designed to last about 50 years.
The majority of the electricity infrastructure was also built “for past or current climate conditions,” according to a report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and not prepared for those conditions to change. Extreme weather, from heavy rain to heat waves, is the No. 1 cause of most outages. And from 2003-2012, 80% of power outages were caused by the weather, according to a report from Climate Central.
These kinds of weather events are happening more often and at a greater intensity.
The 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people and burned over 150,000 acres in and around Paradise, California, was sparked by a hundred-year-old transmission line. An investigation published by The Wall Street Journal found that the incident wasn’t a one off, but that many of PG&E’s aging lines could present a risk.
“We have known for a long time that we are dealing with aging and antiquated infrastructure,” Reed told the outlet.
That aging and antiquated infrastructure is increasingly at risk and often overwhelmed by record-breaking heat waves.
Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire …read more
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