In the wake of Ida, a hurricane intensified by the warming climate, more than a million electric consumers in Louisiana and hundreds of thousands more households across the eastern U.S. lost power. It was the latest demonstration of how climate stressors are pummeling an outdated and vulnerable electric grid – following California’s rolling blackouts, a winter storm that devastated Texas, and power outages during the Pacific Northwest’s record heat wave.
Climate upheaval generates a daunting array of hazards for electric utilities. Extreme heat and cold can reduce transmission capacity just as demand soars. Flooding, whether due to sea-level rise, storm surge or extreme precipitation, can inundate substations, while high winds drop limbs and trees onto wires and poles. Already in Maine, “the storms we do see are growing more powerful,” said David Norman, manager of regulatory support for the investor-owned utility Versant Power.
Maine’s electric utilities are taking steps to increase storm preparedness, but far more needs to be done to protect ratepayers from extended power outages.
Maine’s Climate Action Plan focused on increasing renewable power and transforming the grid but overlooked its climate resilience, noted Ken Colburn, a Maine Climate Council member and energy expert. “Are we adequately prepared for extreme weather events today? No. Do we need to focus much more on grid resilience? Yes.”
Electric utilities need to strengthen climate resilience through a decentralized approach – with localized renewable energy sources that can act as microgrids (capable of generating and distributing power independent of the larger grid). “It’s not the old grid-hardening approach of just building more and bigger poles and wires,” Colburn said. “It’s a whole new world.”
To be prepared for climate stressors, utilities should systematically analyze where their systems are vulnerable, looking at every facet from infrastructure and operations to employee safety.
In 2015-16, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) program helped guide 17 utilities to complete climate vulnerability assessments, including Iberdrola USA (now Avangrid), Central Maine Power’s parent company. According to Jason Rauch, CMP’s sustainability manager, resiliency measures envisioned in the first 20 years included changing construction standards, making system upgrades and considering microgrid strategies. (Despite repeated requests from The Maine Monitor, CMP did not share the climate vulnerability assessment by deadline.)
CMP proposed enhanced vegetation trimming in a 2018 rate case, a request that the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) denied, recommending instead two “enhanced climate resiliency” pilot projects to address poorly performing circuits in Eliot and Jackman (among at least a dozen other such circuits). These projects entail a combination of vegetation management, more automation, and hardening the grid with more durable poles and covered “tree wire” designed to withstand branch impacts.
Relying on outdated research
CMP’s 2016 climate vulnerability assessment is still used as a reference, Rauch noted, despite the fact that more current and localized climate data are now available. The utility’s original analysis of flooding threats relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps, which the Maine Climate Council’s 2020 scientific and technical assessment described as “outdated and inaccurate” (in part because they don’t factor in sea-level rise, which is expected to increase 1.5 to 3 feet by 2050).
CMP is completing work to elevate a substation in Bath but found no other substations, among roughly 280, at risk. Yet a 2016 U.S. Department of Homeland Security resilience assessment of the Casco Bay watershed (in CMP’s service territory) projected that a Category 2 hurricane sometime before 2050 could inundate up to 13 power plants and 15 coastal substations.
Utilities at the forefront of climate resilience, like Con Edison in New York, base their planning on worst-case — not best-case — scenarios and update their plans annually “to reflect improved climate science and climate projections.” Con Edison’s plan was developed with climate scientists and is shared openly.
Another utility, municipally owned Seattle City Light, paid for climate modeling specific to its service region and has on staff a “climate change research and adaptation advisor.” CMP and Versant Power have no dedicated climate specialists. Nor has Versant Power completed a comprehensive climate vulnerability assessment, according to Judy Long, its communications manager.
While the PUC does assess utilities’ preparedness in storm investigation dockets, it does not require electric utilities to file climate vulnerability assessments.
Learning from vulnerable settings
Large electric utilities could learn about climate preparedness from small communities contending with greater storm intensity and sea-level rise. Several of Maine’s island communities are considering how to build resilience and move toward all-renewable power through increased efficiency and building weatherization, locally generated power, battery storage and various technologies that help consumers actively manage their electric use (to lower demand in peak times and increase demand when renewable supplies are greatest).
Two island communities, Eastport and Islesboro, are getting support from the federal DOE, national research labs and a local partner, the nonprofit Island Institute, to incorporate microgrids that would allow local renewable energy generation to power buildings when the larger grid goes down.
In Eastport, backup power for the microgrid may come in part from tidal energy and battery storage through a collaboration between Ocean Renewable Power Company and Versant. Both partners see this project as a “test bed,” Norman said. “We both have a great interest in figuring this out.” (Versant is also considering a microgrid in Aroostook County.)
With battery storage systems, “the technology is clearly there,” Norman said. Now the utility is reviewing which platform to use for managing distributed local energy sources and how best to control the microgrid. Versant is getting advice from utilities in other states and trying to convey the technical challenges so decision-makers can craft policies that support microgrids, Norman said. “We’re all learning.”
Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, a consumer-owned utility serving Vinalhaven and North Haven, draws some power from a 4.5-megawatt wind farm and is “looking to add battery storage to be 100 percent renewable,” said Amy Watson, its CEO. That capacity would also help the islands be self-sufficient if the mainland grid goes down. The cooperative’s work is aligned with the ongoing climate preparedness efforts of both communities, and all four linemen live locally. “We’re responsive, we’re proactive and we have eyes on our system consistently,” she added. “That’s one of the benefits of having a community-owned system.”
Changing the incentives
To electric consumers, climate risks like severe storms or heat waves are tangible, even life-threatening. Those risks can look very different to investor-owned utilities, as Avangrid revealed in a questionnaire shared by Utility Dive. Weather events may entail costs that aren’t fully recoverable from ratepayers, Avangrid stated, and so “could adversely affect our cash flows, results of operations and financial position.”
That disparity in risk perception – between the physical and fiscal – isn’t as pronounced in consumer-owned utilities, where shareholder returns are not a driving motive. Investor-owned utilities likely need more performance-based incentives and regulatory guidance to undertake the planning and investments required for the grid to withstand more extreme temperatures and weather. Historically, “they’ve never been rewarded for being innovative,” Colburn said.
The PUC is now obligated to consider climate in its decisions, and it is reviewing performance metrics for Maine’s electric utilities. So now is an opportune time for the commission to start requiring utilities to do comprehensive resilience planning using the most current science.
Long-term resilience planning should be integral to the power sector transformation work recommended in the Climate Action Plan and coordinated by the Governor’s Energy Office. The faster that planning process happens, the more quickly Maine communities can move toward localized electric generation – a potential life-saver when climate disasters strike.