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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency

Richard J. Campbell
Specialist in Energy Policy

High winds, especially when combined with precipitation from seasonal storms, can cause damage to electricity utility systems, resulting in service interruptions to large numbers of electricity customers. While most such power outages are caused by damage from trees and tree limbs falling on local electricity distribution lines and poles, major power outages tend to be caused by damage to electricity transmission lines, which carry bulk power long distances. Depending on the severity of the storm and resulting impairment, power outages can last a few hours or extend to periods of several days, and have real economic effects. Power outages can impact businesses (primarily through lost orders and damage to perishable goods and inventories), and manufacturers (mainly through downtime and lost production, or equipment damage). Data from various studies lead to cost estimates from storm-related outages to the U.S. economy at between $20 billion and $55 billion annually. Data also suggest the trend of outages from weather-related events is increasing.

Suggested solutions for reducing impacts from weather-related outages include improved treetrimming schedules to keep rights-of-way clear, placing distribution and some transmission lines underground, implementing Smart Grid improvements to enhance power system operations and control, inclusion of more distributed generation, and changing utility maintenance practices and metrics to focus on power system reliability. However, most of these potential solutions come with high costs which must be balanced against the perceived benefits.

A number of options exist for Congress to consider which could help reduce storm-related outages. These range from improving the quality of data on storm-related outages, to a greater strategic investment in the U.S. electricity grid. Congress could empower a federal agency to develop standards for the consistent reporting of power outage data. While responsibility for the reliability of the bulk electric system is under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (as per the Energy Policy Act of 2005), no central responsibility exists for the reliability of distribution systems. One possible option could be to bring distribution systems under the Electric Reliability Organization for reliability purposes. Recovery after storm-related outages might be enhanced by a federal role in formalizing the review or coordination of electric utility mutual assistance agreements (MAAs). This would not necessarily mean federal approval of MAAs, but may help in the cooperative coordination of additional federal and state resources, especially in a wide, multi-state weather event. While there has been much discussion of transmission system inadequacies and inefficiencies, many distribution systems are in dire need of upgrades or repairs. The cost of upgrading the U.S. grid to meet future uses is expected to be high, with the American Society of Civil Engineers estimating a need of $673 billion by 2020. While the federal government recently made funding available of almost $16 billion for specific Smart Grid projects and new transmission lines under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, there has not been a comprehensive effort to study the needs, set goals, and provide targeted funding for modernization of the U.S. grid as part of a long-term national energy strategy. Such an effort would also require decisions about the appropriate roles of government and the private sector.

Power delivery systems are most vulnerable to storms and extreme weather events. Improving the overall condition and efficiency of the power delivery system can only serve to improve the resiliency of the system, and help hasten recovery from weather-related outages. Ultimately, however, electric utilities are responsible for this infrastructure. They are in the business of selling electricity, and they cannot sell electricity if their power delivery systems are out of service.

Date of Report: August 28, 2012
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: R42696
Price: $29.95

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