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Resiliency: How Superstorm Sandy Changed America’s Grid

21 October 2014

Superstorm Sandy was arguably one of the most significant storms in the history of the U.S. power sector. It was not a worst-case scenario. It was not the most expensive. And it was not the deadliest. But a confluence of factors made Sandy into an extraordinary event with a deep and lasting impacton how American utilities think about the future of the electric grid.

Extreme weather is a normal part of doing business in the power sector. Ever since America began to electrify the nation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wind, rain, ice and lightning have been there to knock them down.

While not as commonplace as they are in the Southeast, hurricanes in the Northeast have threatened utilities since the dawn of the electric era. As the electricity system expanded widely outside urban areas, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 –a Category 3 storm more powerful than Sandy at landfall– caused outages for tens of thousands that lasted for weeks.

Over the last century, dozens of hurricanes and tropical storms, snow and ice storms, and other extreme weather events have damaged the Northeastern grid and forced massive outages. In other regions of the U.S., tornadoes, hurricanes, hail and wildfires remain a constant threat to the electricity system. All utilities deal with these threats and must build weather risks into their planning. Some do it far more effectively than others.

So if extreme weather planning is already such an integral piece of the power sector, why revisit the story of Sandy?

A combination of size, scope and timing set Sandy apart from past events that have caused trouble for the grid. Consequently, in the year and a half since the storm ravaged the East Coast, there’s been a meaningful shift in the way that utilities, regulators and policymakers talk about the electricity system.

Tens of billions of dollars have been proposed or spent to modernize the grid; power companies have become more vocal about factoring climate change into planning; and new smart grid technologies have proven their value to the electricity system.

“I think Sandy was a watershed event for the industry in terms of planning”, said Peter Fox-Penner, a utility expert and principal with the Brattle Group, an economic consulting group in Washington.

The most obvious differentiator was Sandy’s timing. The storm hit the highest populated area of the U.S. at high tide.

When the storm finally dissipated over the Great Lakes, it left 8.5 million people without power in twenty-one states –the highest outage total for any U.S. extreme weather event in history. Sandy didn’t cause the same level of displacement and economic destruction as Hurricane Katrina seven years earlier, but it was the second-costliest hurricane ever to hit America. It caused $65 billion in damage and took the lives of 117 people in the U.S.

Since the 1980s, there has been a documented increase in the number of U.S. power outages due to extreme weather. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, weather caused 87 percent of the outages that impacted more than 50,000 customers between 2002 and 2012 –including rainstorms, hurricanes, snowstorms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. In 2011, the U.S. was hit with fourteen weather disaster causing more than $1 billion in damage each. And 2012 brought eleven events costing more than $1 billion each.

A recent report from independent think tank Climate Central documented the surge in weather-related threats. Since 1951, heavy downpours have increased in the Northeast by 74 percent, in the Midwest by 45 percent and in the Southeast by 26 percent. And since the 1980s, there has been an increase in the number and strength of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean.

Faced with this growing problem, regulators are considering how to integrate climate science into long-term planning. With the average power plant now more than 30 years old, the average transformer more than 40 years old and the average transmission line more than 25 years old, there will be a significant turnover of grid infrastructure in the coming years. Adding climate considerations into the planning process will accelerate adoption of information technology (IT), operational tecnology (OT), grid hardening techniques and distributed generation.

There’s a third factor making power outages like those caused by Sandy different than in the past: changing customer demands. America’s power consumption has flatlined in recent years due to an economic slowdown, structural change in the industrial sector and economy-wide efficiency improvements. But the need for constant connectivity has made electricity an even more valuable commodity.

After Sandy, thousands of New Yorkers ventured northward from Manhattan looking for places to charge computers and cell phones. Throughout New York and New Jersey, mobile charging stations –some powered by solar– were set up to help get basic power services to “digital refugees”. Expectations of constant connectivity have changed the public’s perception of utilities. At a time when business can track virtually any product in real time, customers became increasingly frustrated after Sandy when power companies couldn’t give them an accurate timeline for restoration.

In June 2013, President Obama stood in front of hundreds of students at Georgetown University. Instead of talking about green jobs and new investments in the clean energy economy –topics that had faded somewhat from his speeches at that point –the president was there to talk about climate change. When the topic of infrastructure came up, Obama struck a different tone than in past speeches: “What we’ve learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we’ve got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and business, and withstand more powerful storms”. Manmade climate change, he said, had “contributed to the destruction that left large parts of our mightiest city dark and under water”. The speech was a pivotal moment for the White House, which was trying to show it was serious about addressing the climate. In 2009, the buzzword within the industry –and thus the political realm– was “smart grid”. After Sandy, it was largely about “resiliency”.

Editor’s Note: The text of this article was syndicated from sections of “Resiliency”, a GreenTechMedia eBook. To read the entire sections, check out: “Amidst a Surge in Extreme Weather, Distributed Energy Takes On New Meaning for the US Grid”, and “From Smart to Resilient: How Utilities Are Using New Technology to Protect the Grid”, or download the whole book.

Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he focuses on solar, energy efficiency and grid modernization. He has extensive experience reporting on the business and politics of cleantech. He is the host of the Energy Gang, a popular podcast that dives into the technological, political, and market forces driving energy and environmental issues.

Cover image "Suomi PP Satellite Captures Detailed Imagery of Hurricane Sandy Intensification" by NASA's Earth Observatory is licensed under CC BY 2.0.