Newsletter: How to hurricane-proof the grid

New Orleans is in darkness, maybe for weeks. The grid needs to be ready for more intense storms.
By Julian Spector

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Solar panels destroyed by hurricane

The top energy story right now is fallout from Hurricane Ida’s direct hit on Louisiana. The Category 4 storm knocked out power to nearly 900,000 customers across the state, simultaneously shutting down oil and gas sector activity in the region.

Utility Entergy warned that restoration of power in areas hit directly could take three weeks. But the impact was especially severe in New Orleans, the most populous city in Louisiana. Entergy reported Sunday:

As a result of Hurricane Ida’s catastrophic intensity, all eight transmission lines that deliver power into the New Orleans area are currently out of service.

That’s remarkable. Irma essentially turned New Orleans into a temporary grid island. It’s the electrical equivalent of trying to drive into the city if all freeways and major thoroughfares were suddenly blocked.

Here’s what that looked like on the outage map Monday.

The immediate challenge is to restore power to everybody. New Orleans will have high temperatures in the upper 80s with potent humidity all week. That’s not a pleasant environment to inhabit without air conditioning or refrigeration.

In the longer term, this raises thornier questions about how to plan for the grid of the future. 

Many utilities are asking regulators to let them invest in grid-hardening techniques, like putting overhead wires underground or reinforcing the poles. But even carefully buried power lines won’t help if electricity can’t reach them, and that’s exactly what happens if a hurricane snaps a city’s ties to the broader grid.

That raises the question of what kind of power plants Entergy can muster within city limits to restart portions of the local grid or keep high-priority facilities running. (I’m waiting for a response from Entergy on just that topic).

This illustrates the dangers of relying too much on power shipped in from elsewhere. But that remains the norm for cities, where it’s hard to build enough power plants to meet demand, given space constraints and impacts on the surroundings.

The alternative paradigm, of course, is distributed energy that produces and stores power at homes and community buildings.

I know if I lived in New Orleans, I’d be wishing I had some solar and batteries to keep my house going. But we’ll need to see data on how distributed energy performed there before coming to conclusions on what lessons to draw from this.

Hurricane-proofing the Caribbean grid

In the meantime, if you want to brush up on hurricane-proofing a clean energy grid, I highly recommend this story we just published from freelancer Kiernan Dunlop in Antigua and Barbuda.

Islands across the world are making the switch to solar to save money on expensive imported generator fuel and to play a part in reducing the carbon emissions responsible for climate change.

But if these plants are going to withstand the more frequent and intense hurricanes that are also an outcome of the changing climate, engineers and contractors will have to consider hurricane resiliency throughout the design and construction process.
solar microgrid in Barbuda
Green Barbuda was designed specifically to withstand the new intensity of hurricanes in the warming Caribbean. (Photo courtesy of Masdar)

The Green Barbuda project will power more than half of the island’s daily electricity needs using solar and batteries. Diesel generators kick in for the remaining hours. But the whole thing had to be specially designed for survival after Hurricane Irma wrecked an earlier solar project in 2017.

The first one had been built to withstand winds up to 160 mph (slightly more than Ida’s highest speeds this week). Irma hit 185 mph.

The good news is, there’s a lot that can be done to hurricane proof a power plant:

  • Move the site out of reach of storm surge.
  • Invest in heavy-duty bolts for the solar modules, instead of clips that break off in high winds.
  • Reinforce the solar frames and the structures that house the batteries and generators.
  • Even with those upgrades, solar is still highly competitive with the costs of imported diesel fuel.

But there’s a warning here, too. Storms have gotten stronger and more damaging to grid infrastructure, even in the last few years. Here’s what Christopher Burgess, projects director for the Global South at think tank RMI, told Dunlop:

The Caribbean did not experience any Category 5 hurricanes between 2007 and 2016, when the solar industry was taking off. Solar projects in the region were designed to withstand Category 3 hurricanes, which have wind speeds of up to 129 mph.

Some islands had never even had a Category 5 hit,” Burgess said. But it’s really since 2017 that these Category 5s are now the norm.”

Green Barbuda may survive another Irma-like storm. But if climate change continues to intensify extreme weather, future storms could make Irma look like an opening act.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.