Aging US power grid faces game-changing threats

A new White House report says hurricanes, blizzards and other weather calamities -- not to mention cyberattacks -- show why it's time to invest in new infrastructure.

By Bruce Kennedy Aug 14, 2013 10:41AM

Electrical towers (© Stockbyte/Getty Images)We're entering a dangerous stretch of the Atlantic hurricane season. The Weather Channel says mid-August through October is the busiest period for hurricanes, with the season's height usually coming in the middle of September.

Experts say Superstorm Sandy, which struck at the end of last year's hurricane season and caused damage estimated at up to $65 billion, has been a game changer when it comes to how people now view weather-related events and disruptions. Many communities along the Northeast coast of the U.S. are still recovering from Sandy's widespread damage and the loss of at least 117 lives.

Adding to those concerns is a new White House report warning that weather-related power outages will rise in the future as climate change increases -- and that the U.S. must work to strengthen its vulnerable power grid.

"Severe weather is the number one cause of power outages in the United States," the report's introduction says, "and costs the economy billions of dollars a year in lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production, inconvenience and damage to grid infrastructure."

It notes that the country's electric grid is more than 100 years old and was designed to carry much smaller loads. The study quotes figures from NERC, the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corp., that 70% of the grid's transmission lines and power transformers in the U.S. and Canada are now more than 25 years old, while the average power plant is more than 30 years old.

So it's no surprise that aging power lines and transformers get damaged during hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes and other extreme weather events, leaving many communities and sometimes millions of Americans to cope with power outages. "Between 2003 and 2012," the report says, quoting Department of Energy figures, "roughly 679 power outages, each affecting at least 50,000 customers, occurred due to weather events."

And the cost of those outages adds up, to between $18 billion and $33 annually, although another Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy could easily push those figures higher.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated $4.5 billion to the Department of Energy for investments in "modern grid technology": equipment and practices that will increase the grid's reliability and resilience in the face of extreme weather.

Those investments include better risk management and emergency training, cost-effective strategies like upgrading transmission structures and poles with stronger materials, and, where financially and physically possible, putting utility lines underground. It also means increasing the overall system's flexibility in response to power emergencies and ensuring it can recover rapidly from those situations.

The benefits, the White House report says, will go beyond costly power outages. A stronger grid can lead to a more efficient use of energy, make power more dependable and enhance national security against cyberattacks. After all, 99% of Department of Defense installations within the U.S. rely on the commercial grid for power.

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Aug 14, 2013 12:04PM
The White House, ie, the POTUS wants to "invest" in a massive infrastructure project to update the grid, eh?

Mr. President, what did you do with the first trillion we gave you, for all those "shovel ready" infrastructure projects?  Give us a full accounting of all that spending and then explain to us exactly why repairing the same street twice in 3 years was more important than what you want to do now.   Explain to us exactly how much taxpayer money ended up in the union coffers, who then used it to actively campaign for you and your party in 2012.  Then maybe, just maybe, we can talk about this new plan of yours.

Aug 14, 2013 12:36PM
"new White House report"  ???  I read this same stuff 5 years ago and 10 years ago. The $4.5 billion that the energy department got 4 years ago.........well, they hired a bunch of political patronage guys, bought a lot of vehicles & computers & upgraded office equipment, paid for some wonderful weekly trips to 'analyze' random power distribution systems, and gave us tongue-in-cheek reports that a mid level AEP clerk could have spit out in an hour. This is a purely bullchit article!
Aug 14, 2013 11:21AM
The Power companies will invest what they need too...

The government should not be spending a single dime on this stuff.   
Aug 14, 2013 1:15PM
Here we go again, after 6 yrs of Obama, it's still Bush and the republicans fault. Why can't the democrats and the potus own up to their faults, and where is the trillion dollars supposedly for infrastructure 4years ago. Hope and change I guess.
Aug 14, 2013 1:13PM
Yeah...but instead of spending the billions to upgrade our infastructure, we will fund wind farms and solar farms that dont pay for themselves, and fork over billions to prevent politically tied "green" energy companies from going out of business.
Aug 14, 2013 1:12PM

Barry just blew 6 billion Obama dollars on African electricity infrastructure during his 100 million Obama dollar vacation - is he planning to renege on that promise, too?



Aug 14, 2013 1:14PM

Thank you to all the local utilities that throw this article in our face every time they need to up energy prices!!!

Our government is constantly blowing smoke up our --ss just to sound current, like they are doing something for us...yeh right !  We have a sure disaster right around the corner with our US currency value and our government does nothing.  We are in big trouble, and shortly, very shortly, the US will be broke and our so called economy will come to a halt.  Don't bother saving your money, you better be buying a commodity.  Our money is about to become worthless.

GOD SAVE AMERICA !!!!!!!!!!!

Aug 14, 2013 1:12PM
Barack's an ****; who'd give that clueless, inept buffoon another dime to waste?

You won't change the weather no matter how much humankind thinks about being Gods.  You can't fool Mother Nature.  


We need to get our attitudes in order and get ready for the changes that were coming since the last Ice Age ending 11,000 years ago.  


You may not remember the 2 mile thick ice over much of Canada (all of the Northern Hemisphere around the globe) and down to the middle of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, etc., but you can come here and see the results of all that Ice.   Our landscape (mantle) is still rising back from the ice's compression those many years ago.


Move away from the coast lines to higher ground and stop wasting money by rebuilding on the East, South and West coasts.  It is only a matter of time before they are all under water parks.

Aug 14, 2013 1:35PM
I'm sorry, Wasn't there a moratorium on building new power plants several years ago? No new nukes, no new coal plants. Now you reap thee rewards of your forward "green" thinking. I guess when it does begin to fail, it will be George Bush's fault!
Aug 14, 2013 1:35PM
how can we continue to spend money we dont have ? its a matter of time before it all goes down the drain and we end up like the third world countries. what happens when you dont pay your rent or mortgage . you have it taken away from you or kicked out.
Aug 14, 2013 1:40PM
Another thing we might consider is the lack of production with the EPA restricting energy production particularly coal burning plants that at this point are not being replaced.  Blackouts may become the norm.
Aug 14, 2013 1:27PM

Regardless of DC's inability to do anything constructive or meaningful for the country unless is personally benefits them, the article is right that its way past time to start upgrading our grid. The electric grid is essential to our country and goes beyond any free market response to those that say let the utilities handle it because in many cases they have and only do what is needed to get by while focusing more on increasing the bottomline. Why innovate and improve when you can continue to milk the same cash stream with acceptable returns? That's the biggest issue our country faces these days. I say get the grid updated and be proactive rather than reactive for a change. We need updates such as smart grid tech that will make the grid more stable, more efficient, and more adaptable and ready to accept increase use of renewable tech like solar and wind. A hybrid system that can use centralized and decentralized power generation schemes. This as well as making it more robust against cyberattacks. This is very important and we must get it taken care of sooner than later.

Now with all that said I will say hats off to the original designers and those that have had to figure out how to make what we have work with current day demands. There is something to be said about that and need to give credit where credit is due.


I think its time

Aug 14, 2013 3:12PM
they should have done this many years ago, but we keep rebuilding other countries with billions and billions of our own tax dollars , yet America s infrastructure falls behind more and more, year after year ,there's no money , but yet there's billions and billions of dollars for other countries  ,people in the White House have it backwards, should build the United States first ..but you cant teach or tell anything to the people in the White House
Aug 14, 2013 3:05PM

We are shutting down the coal fired power stations due to EPA regulations.

There are no replacements being built. Windmills and solar will not do it.

So sorry for my grandkids and all the young people that will not have a good electrical future.

It looks like brownouts and power grid failures are in the future.

The grandkids will not see it coming. So, so sad!

Aug 14, 2013 2:15PM
With power at the monthly price of a 'luxury' item, let the Power Robber Barons pay for the infrastructure improvements.  Otherwise, it's time to kick the 1% out of the business and turn ownership over to the citizens.  PG&E, NV Energy just to name a couple of states with 'monopolies' on power, the larger the corporation, the worse it is for the consumers.  These too big to fail corporations guarantee we will be screwed by them either through fees, 'welfare' corporate subsidies or bailouts.  Take your pick.  The 'grid' system has been replaceable for a decade at least, a product has been developed that supplies power INDIVIDUALLY to a home or business via a device as big as a breadbox.   The power robber barons stand in the way of modernization, competition and invention.
Aug 14, 2013 3:08PM
Yes, keep complaining big govt needs more money to waste.  Raise taxes increase waste 10 fold.
Aug 14, 2013 4:02PM
It will never happen! If some other country needs it, then let's spend a trillion. That's how the government works here in the good old USA. We can't take care of our on people but at the same time where sending trillions in to other countries.
Aug 14, 2013 3:14PM

hope and change.....HHMMPH!!!



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