Climate Crisis Catches Power Companies Unprepared
and 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 utilitys assistant general manager, of the people who were voluntarily asking to live in the dark in September, during . It was a sign of growing angst, he said. Were seeing more and more widespread impacts of climate change. Its clear its 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 , utilities intentionally shutting off power lines to avoid starting fires, has now spread to and . On Wednesday, Californias grid operator the states 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 that demand will reach a record high over the next week as a heat dome bakes the state. 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. Its 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. But in the past few years, the entire industry has really been smacked upside the head. With rare exceptions, most electricity providers nationwide still dont 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 . 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 . This summer, Californias grid operator the state faces the risk of further outages as a relentless drought has sharply reduced water levels in reservoirs and reduced output from the states hydroelectric dams. Texas was caught badly unprepared for a ferocious February storm that knocked out power for 4.5 million customers and . The state still does not factor climate change into its energy planning, and even after Texas legislators approved upgrades to the grid this spring, scientists 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 say early climate models couldnt precisely 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 have 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 whats coming. Thats starting to change. Last year, California, the states private utilities to factor global warming into their long-term planning. In June, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to discuss the risks that climate change poses to electric reliability. 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 transmission network to avoid a repeat of 2018, when a broken power line , 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 , which has already burned 200,000 acres north of Sacramento. And adaptation wont come cheap. A , 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 from 2023 to 2026, which could raise the average residential bill by roughly $430 per year. PG&E burying 10,000 miles of power lines underground, which could cost up to $30 billion more. In the meantime, many residents are figuring out ways to keep the lights on when the utility cant. 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&Es power shutdowns. 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 utilitys coastal substations over the next several decades. Climate is not staying the same, Ms. Winn said. Its 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 , 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 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 Universitys Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and consultants at ICF to prepare a , 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 wouldnt 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 Eds transformers and cables wouldnt be able to cool down overnight, as they were designed to do. The utility estimated that the cooling equipment at its facilities . Experts called Con Eds climate study the gold standard. But relatively few utilities have undertaken a similar exercise. A lot of utilities say theyre doing vulnerability planning, but when you dig into the details, theyre still basing their analyses on historical weather conditions, said Romany Webb, a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law . 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, 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 in 2015 after realizing that its hydropower facilities were vulnerable to shifting precipitation patterns driven by . 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 , affecting roughly 1,700 customers. The utility had to rotate its repair crews more frequently because of the dangerous heat, slowing response times. The biggest challenge for us, said Ronda Strauch, the climate change research and adaptation adviser at Seattle City Light, is the pace of climate change relative to the pace at which we can plan and respond to the situation at hand. is a climate reporter specializing in policy and technology efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions. At The Times, he has also covered international climate talks and the changing energy landscape in the United States. is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering alternative energy. Before coming to The Times in 2018 he covered utility and energy issues at The Tampa Bay Times and The Los Angeles Times.