Hardening the Power Grid

Climate Change Electricity Cooperatives Energy Hurricane Privatization

            Marble Falls      When Hurricane Ida came into the greater New Orleans area in August 2021, we were spared, or so we thought.  The levees held.  Flooding was minimal.  Evacuations were chaotic, leading for continuing calls for re-establishing contraflow to ease mass exits, but on the whole, we all mostly felt lucky.  Then the power failure shut the city down, stranding people, collapsing businesses, and ensuring havoc.  The giant middle south utility, Entergy, serving most of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Orleans was still trying to restore power to some families a month after the storm.  Residents were in an uproar as initial days became a week or more.  A transmission tower collapsed into the Mississippi River, and it turned out that the number of towers and redundancy had decreased.  The criticism of the investor-owned Entergy was loud and long.  A new power plant, approved supposedly to prevent outages, wasn’t fully activated or done so in a timely fashion.  Despite all of the historical hurricane and storm issues, the constant refrain and oft-mentioned critique was that Entergy, while cost cutting, had failed to “harden the power grid” to retain reliability.

I say all of this by way of explanation for the obsession some of us have in looking at the experience in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian, where reportedly 2.5 million were left without power on Wednesday, September 28thPoweroutage.us is a site that tracks on a state-by-state basis exactly what it says, power outages.  Not all utilities report or have available reports, but those tend to be the exceptions.  Our tech wizards, based in New Orleans, were all over this, not because they were doom scrolling, but because empathy rules often when misery does not love company, but looks to see if lessons have been learned, or if nature is once again schooling slow students.

The biggest providers, Duke Entergy and Florida Power & Light, experienced the bulk of the outages.  Duke doesn’t have the best reputation in general, still depending on an inordinate amount of coal in its supply for example, and regularly in the headlines in North Carolina and Georgia for one issue after another.  To their credit they seem to have restored 99% of their customers’ power by Sunday, only four days after landfall with only about 30,000 still lacking out of their almost 2 million served.  FP&L is larger, serving almost 6 million and is about 94% at the 5-day mark with 361,000 down.  Some of the co-ops were more imperiled.  Peace River, had initially been walloped, but now has five of its ten counties back on line, and has restored about 91% of its customers, and, remember, much of this is rural, so it’s a slog.  Lee County is being eviscerated for failing to order a mandatory evacuation when its neighbors were all doing so, and the Lee County Electric Co-operative is in the worse shape of any provider.  Five days after Ian hit, only 22% of its customers have power, while 186,985 of its total of 237,996 are without power.  The county wasn’t prepared and maybe that also goes for the utility?

Ian is definitely one of the worst storms to hit the USA.  Some are calling it the first storm of the climate change era.  We’re not throwing stones here.  The recovery efforts are herculean!  Unquestionably, the response has been rapid, and mostly effective as these things go, but, as we prepare for the new normal, whether in Florida or Louisiana or anywhere along the coasts, are our public service commissions and utilities of all shapes and sizes doing what needs to be done to harden the grid for more to come and likely worse ahead?  On that score, we’re less sure if the lessons of Hurricane Ida were learned or some got luckier on Ian.

One thing is clear.  We need to bar any future stores being named with three letters starting with an “I”.  Of course, I don’t believe that bad things come in threes, but why take any chances, right?