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How the Energy Industry Can Prepare for Natural Disasters

image credit: Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Natural disasters represent an ongoing risk to the nation's electrical grid. Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and similar events have the potential to cause billions of dollars in economic damages. More than that, they pose a danger to health and public safety, compromising the security of citizens across the country.

Unfortunately, no single entity is responsible for operating, planning or regulating the grid. Increasing its resilience would require the collective effort of state, federal, private and public groups. This incredible degree of coordination may present a challenge, but the energy industry could provide significant support.

More specifically, the energy industry can help prepare for natural disasters. It's possible to mitigate the impact of disruptive events by exercising certain precautions. We'll explore these measures in greater detail, looking at the subject of grid vulnerability and potential solutions for risk management.

Emergency Exercises and Grid Resilience

A report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine proposes an expansion of efforts to convene emergency preparedness exercises at a regional level. These exercises would include simulations of outages, specifically those that occurred as a result of natural disasters.

The electricity industry would assume an important role in the organization of these exercises, according to the National Academies' report. It would work alongside regional and state agencies, the North American Energy Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

These simulations would prove valuable in the event of a natural disaster, providing individuals with the resources they need to protect themselves and others. However, the suggested exercises are far from the only solution in the report. Experts also recommend greater investment in grid resilience.

The owners and operators of electrical infrastructure would cooperate with the Department of Energy to systematically review previous outages. Furthermore, they would demonstrate technologies and operational arrangements with the potential to reinforce the grid. This will aid in the integration of new solutions.

Disaster Response With Alternative Fuels

Given the short- and long-term effects of natural disasters, emergency preparedness is crucial. As context, hurricanes can have a massive environmental impact, as evidenced by Hurricane Harvey. Refineries and petrochemical plants in the affected area released 8.3 million pounds of pollution into the atmosphere.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, energy companies worked to maintain safety. Compressed natural gas stations in the region were able to remain active, supplying fuel to individuals and groups that required it. These stations continued to operate without complications due to the security of underground pipelines.

The energy industry has helped with disaster response in similar emergencies. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, a fleet of 190 CNG buses enabled safe transport during Hurricane Sandy. While other fleets had difficulties with fuel shortages, the 190 CNG buses had access to an uninterrupted supply of CNG.

That said, compressed natural gas is only one solution for emergency preparedness. A degree of flexibility is also vital for servicing critical infrastructure needs. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has trucks that can run on both gasoline and natural gas, allowing for more fueling options and extended range.

Looking Toward the Future

National disasters may represent an ongoing risk, but the associated dangers are possible to suppress. With support from the energy industry, the country can protect its citizens against the dangers of hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and similar events. Preserving the electrical grid is one of the foremost priorities.

That said, it will require a substantial amount of resources and the continued commitment of various organizations. The solutions in the previous sections are promising, but they are only a partial view of a much larger picture. Even so, the country has made progress in addressing its vulnerabilities.

Looking toward the future, U.S. citizens can feel confident in their future safety.

Emily Folk's picture

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 26, 2019 9:09 pm GMT

Emily, in the homepage headline for your article you write

"Alternative fuel and renewable energy could aid in grid resilience..."

but no details follow on how renewable energy might aid in grid resilience. Then, under "Disaster Response with Alternative Fuels":

"In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey...compressed natural gas stations in the region were able to remain active...a fleet of 190 CNG buses enabled safe transport during Hurricane Sandy....That said, compressed natural gas is only one solution for emergency preparedness...the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has trucks that can run on both gasoline and natural gas...

Looking toward the future, U.S. citizens can feel confident in their future safety."

"Natural gas" (methane) and gasoline are hardly alternative fuels. Natural gas is the source of 810 million tonnes of U.S. CO2 emissions, second only to coal, with gasoline a distant third as the leading contributors to climate change.

After the specious nod to renewables in your headline, I guess the message is U.S. citizens can only feel confident in their future safety by relying on 19th-century, climate-killing products. Seems like our biggest concern should instead be the push by global oil companies to generate electricity and power transportation with fossil-fuel methane. Nothing could be less natural than "natural gas."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 24, 2019 8:34 pm GMT

I'd say one of the important points about renewables helping in the prevention of disasters being even worse for places is as a way to get emergency power going. Deployable solar & wind can help get critical power to allow for communications, emergency medical care, etc. when main central generators are taken down. There's also the consideration of having utility-scale renewables ready to bring at least some power back to the grid for any generation sources that get cut off from their fuel supply (namely coal and gas). 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 25, 2019 8:10 pm GMT

Matt, what is "deployable" solar – is it supposed to take the place of what's been destroyed?For now, Puerto Rico doesn't have what worked for Texas during Hurricane Harvey:

"The two nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project plant near Houston were operating at full capacity despite wind gusts that peaked at 130 mph as the hurricane made landfall. The plant implemented its severe weather protocols as planned and completed hurricane preparations ahead of Category 4 Hurricane Harvey striking the Texas Gulf Coast on August 25th.

Anyone who knows anything about nuclear was not surprised. Nuclear is the only energy source immune to all extreme weather events – by design."

Hurricane Harvey Makes The Case For Nuclear Power

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 26, 2019 11:06 am GMT

The idea behind deployable solar is to provide some form of generation in an emergency situation when fuel supplies can't get to the disaster area, the grid system has been damaged, and/or generation sources (solar like in your pic or otherwise) have been damaged. Here's an example of what I'm referring to: https://futurism.com/roll-up-solar-panels-could-fundamentally-alter-how-we-power-the-world

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 26, 2019 9:04 pm GMT

I'm looking for a sunny lawn in this photo of post-Harvey Houston to unroll a rollup solar panel, but coming up short:

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 27, 2019 10:06 pm GMT

I don't think it's fair to point to a single photo of one instance where a tech wouldn't be useful and then dismiss it. Puerto Rico was without power for months after Maria, hospitals and community centers needed power desperately-- and if this type of tech can provide some assistance in those instances, then that's a great use of renewable energy. I'm not claiming it fixes anything by any means, but surely there are emergency situations in which the tech is useful

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 30, 2019 2:43 pm GMT

Matt, fair enough. But even if there were sufficient dry, flat land to unroll a rollup solar panel after a hurricane, cloud cover would render it useless during the first critical hours (and days, usually) anyway.

No one cares about carbon emissions when they're desperate, nor should they. That's why diesel generators are used almost exclusively for backup systems (even for older nuclear plants!).

Non-dispatchable renewables - solar and wind - are the antithesis of reliability, and when dreamers start thinking they can convert skeptics by labeling white black, and up down, they will be called out.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 1, 2019 5:52 pm GMT

No one cares about carbon emissions when they're desperate, nor should they. That's why diesel generators are used almost exclusively for backup systems (even for older nuclear plants!).

Agreed in moments of disaster there's no need to worry about the emissions, but the benefit solar has in the case is that gas/diesel supplies run out and if the emergency is bad it can be difficult/impossible to get them in. Roll-out solar in such instances is a very useful complement for that reason

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 1, 2019 11:35 pm GMT

"Roll-out solar in such instances is a very useful complement for that reason"

Do you have any evidence it "is" a very useful complement, or would "seems like it might be" be more accurate?

I continue to hear renewables advocates freely substituting present for future tense, as if the bright renewable future is a foregone conclusion. So you can understand my skepticism.

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