Electric Utilities, Formed Decades Ago, Struggle to Meet Climate Crisis

The phone call to the Eugene Water & Electric Board was startling. A group of homeowners, fearing a storm could knock down nearby power lines and ignite wildfires, was asking the Oregon utility to turn off their electricity.

“I about fell out of my chair,” said Rodney Price, the utility’s assistant general manager, of the people who were voluntarily asking to live in the dark in September, during one of the worst fire seasons Oregon had ever seen. It was a sign of growing angst, he said. “We’re seeing more and more widespread impacts of climate change. It’s clear it’s impacting how we do our business.”

Across the United States, power companies are scrambling to keep up with a barrage of extreme weather from a rapidly warming climate. In the West, that means trying to meet soaring demand for air-conditioning because of record heat, without sparking wildfires made more destructive because of record drought. A desperate tactic pioneered in California, utilities intentionally shutting off power lines to avoid starting fires, has now spread to Oregon and Nevada.

On Wednesday, California’s grid operator asked the state’s 39 million residents to conserve electricity or face rolling power outages, the sixth time it has done so this summer. The Texas power grid operator has forecast that demand will reach a record high over the next week as a heat dome bakes the state. Last month, New York City asked residents to conserve energy and several neighborhoods lost power during a four-day stretch of scorching temperatures and humidity.

Nationwide, electric utilities, grid operators and regulators have struggled to adequately prepare for the hazards of global warming, like storm surges that can knock out substations and heat waves that can cause power plants to falter, with many expecting that the biggest threats will not materialize for decades to come.

“It’s fair to say there was this widespread assumption that the impacts of climate change and extreme weather would unfold more gradually, and there would be more time to prepare,” said Alison Silverstein, an energy consultant based in Austin, Texas, who has worked at the state’s Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “But in the past few years, the entire industry has really been smacked upside the head.”

With rare exceptions, most electricity providers nationwide still don’t conduct detailed climate studies that would help them understand all the ways that increased heat, drought, wildfires or flooding can ravage their power grids, researchers have found.

The consequences are becoming increasingly plain. Last August, California suffered its first widespread blackouts in two decades, leaving 800,000 customers without electricity over two days, after a severe heat wave overwhelmed the grid. This summer, California’s grid operator has warned the state faces the risk of further outages as a relentless drought has sharply reduced water levels in reservoirs and reduced output from the state’s hydroelectric dams.

Texas was caught badly unprepared for a ferocious storm in February that knocked out power for 4.5 million customers and left more than 150 people dead. The state still does not factor climate change into its energy planning, and even after Texas legislators passed a series of measures to upgrade the grid this spring, scientists keep warning that the system remains vulnerable to failure under severe heat waves and drought.

Several factors explain why power companies have been slow to defend themselves against climate change.

Some utilities have complained that early climate models weren’t precise enough to show how rising heat, drought or flooding would affect specific locations, making planning difficult. Regulators are often reluctant to approve major grid upgrades that would raise costs for ratepayers when the benefits are hard to quantify. And many utilities and grid operators share a blind spot: They have long relied on historical weather conditions as they plan for the future. But with global warming fueling increasingly extreme weather, the past may not be the best gauge of what’s coming.

That’s starting to change. Last year, California, for the first time, ordered the state’s private utilities to factor global warming into their long-term planning. In June, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission held a technical conference to discuss the risks that climate change poses to electric reliability. And, on Wednesday, the White House announced that the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress would include $73 billion to modernize the nation’s power grid, partly to accommodate more renewable energy but also to help avoid blackouts.

Still, it will take years to revamp thousands of power plants and transmission lines nationwide to cope with the dangers of a hotter planet.

In California, Pacific Gas & Electric is upgrading its vast transmission network to avoid a repeat of 2018, when a broken power line sparked the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and forced the utility into bankruptcy. But PG&E has warned that completing the work could take a decade. In July, the utility told regulators that its equipment may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which has already burned 200,000 acres north of Sacramento.

And adaptation won’t come cheap. A recent report by ICF International, a consulting firm, estimated that utilities faced a $500 billion shortfall in fortifying their systems against known climate risks.

To pay for wildfire protection, Pacific Gas & Electric has asked California regulators to approve a $5.5 billion rate increase for customers from 2023 to 2026, which could raise the average residential bill by roughly $430 per year. Recently, PG&E has floated the idea of burying 10,000 miles of power lines underground, which could cost up to $30 billion more. This comes at a time when the utility is already trying to invest in measures to slash its planet-warming emissions, such as adding more solar power.

In the meantime, many residents are figuring out ways to keep the lights on when the utility can’t.

Maureen Kennedy spent this spring investigating solar and battery power for her home in Inverness, northwest of San Francisco, because of growing anxiety over PG&E’s power shutdowns. Ms. Kennedy lost power for a week in October 2019 before PG&E restored her electricity, only to lose it again for another week, leaving her in the dark for half of the month. Then, last year, homes in her community were evacuated because of fire threats.

“Your utility is so unreliable that you have to think about spending $18,000 for solar and battery backup,” said Ms. Kennedy, a retired real estate broker.

A spokesman for PG&E declined requests to interview utility executives.

Caroline Winn is the chief executive of San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered many of the techniques other utilities have adopted for wildfires. Her company has started receiving calls and visits from utility workers from Oregon and places as far away as Australia seeking guidance in fire prevention.

But now Ms. Winn worries about another threat from climate change: sea level rise, which could flood four of the utility’s coastal substations over the next several decades. “Climate is not staying the same,” Ms. Winn said. “It’s getting worse. This is not only a California problem. This is a world problem.”

One utility that has embraced climate planning is Con Edison in New York, which got a devastating preview of the risks of a warming planet when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012 and 1.1 million customers lost power. At one point, the hurricane sent 14-foot storm surges into Lower Manhattan, more than a foot higher than the worst-case scenario Con Ed had envisioned, and disabled a crucial substation.

“That storm was a real wake-up call for us,” said Timothy Cawley, chief executive of Con Ed, which spent $1 billion building new storm walls and pumps and installing submersible equipment that could withstand flooding.

But Con Ed also went further: The utility partnered with climate scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and consultants at ICF to prepare a comprehensive climate risk assessment, modeling a variety of future scenarios for sea-level rise, heat waves and other hazards.

That helped Con Ed see risks it might have missed. For instance, the utility found that hotter temperatures wouldn’t just mean more demand for electricity. Climate models suggest that New York City could soon see heat waves that last longer than ever before, which meant that many of Con Ed’s transformers and cables wouldn’t be able to cool down overnight, as they were designed to do. The utility estimated that the cooling equipment at its facilities may need to be up to 40 percent larger by 2040.

Mr. Cawley acknowledged that many of the upgrades will cost money, and that the utility will have to convince regulators that higher electric bills are worth it. “You have to make a good case, but frankly there’s a good case to be made,” he said. “If we put a non-submersible transformer in a floodplain and ten years later it has to be changed out, that will cost even more.”

Experts called Con Ed’s climate study the gold standard. But relatively few utilities have undertaken a similar exercise.

“A lot of utilities say they’re doing vulnerability planning, but when you dig into the details, they’re still basing their analyses on historical weather conditions,” said Romany Webb, a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law who has studied the climate risks utilities face. “Or they are only looking at a few climate impacts, while ignoring others, or focusing on just a few power plants and substations but not considering the risk to their systems as a whole.”

Utilities say they take these concerns seriously.

“Our industry is constantly working to adapt to new and evolving threats to the energy grid, whether protecting against malicious threats like cyber and physical attacks, or addressing the challenges of more severe weather due to climate change,” said Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities.

Even if they do everything right, power companies can still find themselves assailed by the effects of climate change unfolding faster than anticipated.

Seattle City Light, a public utility that serves 900,000 residents, conducted a detailed climate risk assessment in 2015 after realizing that its hydropower facilities were vulnerable to shifting precipitation patterns driven by climate change. The utility is often cited as a model of forward-thinking in this regard.

But last month, when a record-shattering heat wave that shocked even climate scientists hit the Pacific Northwest, the utility faced fresh challenges. As temperatures soared past 100 degrees, some of its underground equipment suffered outages, affecting roughly 1,700 customers. And because of the dangerous heat, the utility had to rotate its repair crews more frequently for safety reasons, which slowed response times.

“The biggest challenge for us is the pace of climate change relative to the pace at which we can plan and respond to the situation at hand,” said Ronda Strauch, the climate change research and adaptation adviser at Seattle City Light. “We can’t predict everything, and there are always going to be surprises like this heat wave. Even with the best planning, we’re still going to have to adapt on the fly.”

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