How Power Grid Resilience Can Save the Day in a Natural Disaster 

As our climate patterns become increasingly unpredictable, our power grids have been put to the test by natural disasters. Between 2003 and 2012, 679 weather-related outages occurred in the United States, caused by catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.  

Though power grid failures after major weather events continue to pose logistical difficulties, researchers are formulating ways to tackle the challenge head-on. In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways a resilient power grid can help keep our infrastructure running in the wake of a (nearly) apocalyptic event. 

Modernizing an Aging Infrastructure 

Much of our current power grid was built in the 1900s, so it comes as no surprise that this aging infrastructure is struggling to hold up in an era of increasing climate change.  

Research into electric grid resilience dates to the 1930s, when the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 caused complete power outages and localized fires across five New England states. Nearly 80 years later, Superstorm Sandy was another wake-up call, leaving 8.5 million people without power in 21 states. Natural disasters like Sandy are becoming more prevalent, demanding urgent solutions and prompting engineers and scientists to revisit research, modernize the grid and push for community resilience. 

Let’s look at some of the ways modern engineers are achieving these goals. 

Infrastructure Hardening 

Those downed power lines after a major storm aren’t just a sign of electricity loss; they’re also a major fire hazard. Infrastructure hardening is one technique that engineers use to make power grids more resilient against natural events. It includes: 

  • raising substations above flood levels. 
  • reinforcing poles and power lines. 
  • building micro grids.  
  • burying more power lines underground to protect them from high winds and falling trees.  

For example, the use of stronger materials such as composite insulators and steel lattice towers can increase the resilience of power lines during major storms. 

Increasing Grid Flexibility 

The goal to optimize grid flexibility isn’t new. The first commercial central power plant in New York City, Pearl Street Station in Lower Manhattan, began operations in 1882 and was powered by direct current (DC). As this type of voltage doesn’t ever “shut off,” the more flexible choice of alternating current (AC) was later introduced. This allowed for facilities to provide electricity safely over larger distances at reduced costs.   

But how can the grid be made more flexible in the modern age? 

#1 The Smart Grid 

Smart grids refer to energy grids that use digital technologies. This includes, for example, installing new sensors and controls at a utility’s grid end, or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). This digitalized software can provide real-time data on how much electricity is being utilized, where it originates and when it will arrive. This information allows utility companies to adjust to unexpected changes in demand and respond to outages more efficiently. Automated switches and sensors can isolate faulty sections of the grid, preventing widespread blackouts and speeding up restoration efforts. 

#2 Microgrids 

There are currently three large grids powering our nation. They are: 

  • The Eastern Interconnection, covering the Eastern United States and parts of Canada. 
  • The Western Interconnection, covering the Western United States. 
  • The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), covering the state of Texas. 

In the event of a major cyclone, blizzard or severe flooding, most communities are reliant on these grids. However, microgrids provide localized power and distribution. This means communities can maintain power even if the main grid is offline – allowing residents to retain essential services like refrigeration (for food and medical supply). This is a vital ability for hospitals, emergency shelters and residential areas. 

Some of the microgrids already in operation are in major universities, the U.S. military and remote areas like Alaska. These localized areas retain power even during major events. 

#3 Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) 

DERs refer to smaller generation units like solar panels and wind turbines, which offer decentralized power generation that is less vulnerable to disruptions in the main grid. During disasters that cause widespread outages, communities with DERs can continue to generate electricity locally, reducing reliance on the main grids. 

This “distributed approach” enhances resilience by diversifying the energy resources available and ensuring a ready supply, especially in disaster-prone areas. 

Advanced Communication Systems 

Reliable communication systems are critical for coordinating emergency responses and ensuring restoration efforts after a disaster. Here are some examples of how utilities stay connected with field crews and control centers: 

  • Satellite links enable long-distance, uninterrupted communication. 
  • Fiber optics ensure uninterrupted communication and are resistant to extreme weather. 
  • Cellular and mobile serve as backup channels for field crews. 
  • Data networking enables remote monitoring of grid components for early issue detection. 
  • Wireless communication using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth offers flexibility for grid operators and field personnel. 

The integration of 5G technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) in modern smart grids have greatly improved interconnectivity and real-time monitoring.  

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Sources:
https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/13457/chapter/2
https://www.epa.gov/green-power-markets/us-grid-regions