Emergency Preparedness and Response

Hurricane Ida Spotlights Critical Deficiencies in Climate Change Preparation (Part 1)

News stories continue to reveal the devastating aftermath from Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2021. The storm’s death toll has reached 84 deaths across eight states, including fatalities as far north as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey due to severe flooding from the storm. Some areas in Louisiana were still without electricity nine days after landfall. Additionally, Reuters reports the U.S. Coast Guard is investigating nearly 350 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico in the storm’s wake.

The aftermath of intense weather events such as Hurricane Ida exposes areas where industry, government, and citizens are not doing enough to prepare for these types of incidents.

This article is part 1 of a two-part series identifying climate change-related issues and steps that can be taken to create better resilience. Part 1 focuses on energy, oil and gas, and air quality. (Part 2 of the series focuses on flooding, hazardous and nonhazardous waste spills and discharges into floodwater, drinking and wastewater systems, and necessary infrastructure upgrades.)

Climate change

“One of the most visible consequences of a warming world is an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events,” reports the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “The National Climate Assessment finds that the number of heat waves, heavy downpours, and major hurricanes has increased in the United States, and the strength of these events has increased, too.”

The impact of climate change is becoming impossible to downplay or ignore. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report documents “that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900, and finds that averaged over the next 20 years, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming.”

“Personally, I’m 54 years old, and in my lifetime, I’ve seen three one-in-100-year storms,” says Jeff Dagle, a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who has studied grid resilience in Puerto Rico and Louisiana, in E&E News. “The key is to prepare for a future when the worst-case scenario may look different than the past.”

Increased methane, carbon dioxide, and greenhouse gas emissions have caused global temperatures to rise, Earthjustice states. This has caused increased dry and hot conditions in California, meaning increased wildfires. Extreme heat also increases the use of air conditioning, which leads to more carbon pollution and strains the energy grids. Warmer air brings increased evaporation, putting more water in the atmosphere that turns into increased rain or snow in wet areas.  Hurricanes are more powerful when they are fueled by warmer ocean waters.

Experts agree there is no turning back the clock. However, industry and government can take steps to prevent climate change from getting worse and be better prepared for increased and more intense weather events.

Energy resilience

Ida resulted in a loss of power for about 948,000 Entergy Corp. customers in Louisiana, exceeded only by the loss of power to 1.1 million customers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to E&E News. Roughly 50,000 customers were without power in Mississippi, reports WIRED.

Extreme heat in the wake of Hurricane Ida caused many of the deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi, as residents did not have access to air conditioning without electricity.

“Entergy said Ida damaged or destroyed 30,679 poles, 36,469 spans of wire and 5,959 transformers – ‘more than hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Delta and Zeta combined,’” says USA Today.

To make matters worse, Entergy’s redundancy power plant—a $210 million, 128-megawatt gas-fired power plant brought online last spring—failed because the tower carrying the high-voltage power lines was destroyed by Ida.

Entergy was already in the hot seat due to several blackouts in its system earlier this year.

“Companies must integrate forward-looking information and science to think about how temperatures, sea-level rise, storms and other risks are projected to change, said Judsen Bruzgul, senior director for climate adaptation and resilience at ICF, which is advising the Department of Energy and Utilities,” according to E&E News.

“A key industry trend is switching the focus to adaptation instead of mitigation, said Chris Burgess, projects director for the Islands Energy Program at RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute. If the planet is warming to the point that heat waves are melting electrical conductors, it’s time to think differently,” E&E News continues.

Everyone is anxious to talk about resiliency in the aftermath of a devastating storm, but once the power is restored, that concern diminishes. As an example, after Florida was hit with back-to-back hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, the state’s utility regulators added requirements for state utility companies to file annual storm plans that are reviewed by regulators. Then, with more than a decade passing without extreme storms, there were complaints and questions about why so much money is spent on the reports and hearings, says Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center (PURC) at the University of Florida, in E&E News.

“Well, when the storms came back, we got the answer,” Kury adds.

Financing repairs and upgrades

System upgrades are costly, and customers usually bear the burden of those costs. The problem in Louisiana is that customers are still paying for repairs from previous hurricanes.

“Shouldering upgrade costs could burden customers who are still paying for old repairs,” the Los Angeles Times says. “Louisiana Public Service Commission documents show Entergy customers outside the city of New Orleans have been charged nearly $2 billion to rebuild lines and refill storm damage reserve funds since 2005.

“Customers will be paying for 2008 Hurricanes Gustav and Ike through next summer; and Isaac, which hit in 2012, through 2026. Entergy wants another $2 billion to cover costs from Laura, Delta and Zeta last year. Repairing Ida’s damage will cost still more.”

Experts agree that power grids are more secure when transmission lines are buried underground, but the cost of doing so is 10 times as much as replacing the overhead lines and poles.

Besides the expense of burying power lines, these types of systems are also susceptible to overheating and can be damaged by flooding, which makes them slower to restore compared with overhead lines.

Solutions

“Batteries are expensive and currently are in limited supply,” E&E News notes. “Environmentalists argue that microturbines that run on natural gas, propane or diesel spew too much emissions, only adding to natural disasters fueled by climate change.”

“Most experts argue that there’s no single remedy, and that it takes a combination of fuels, technologies and designs to build a resilient system. This could include using multiple transmission lines to create redundancy; relying on reinforced concrete poles instead of wooden ones; deploying smart meters and other control systems that can reduce demand during an emergency; and placing anemometers on top of utility poles to get local wind speeds.”

For building resilience in the energy sector, the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, an interagency resource of the federal government, recommends the following:

System and operation planning

  • Diversify supply chains to address multiple types of disruptions.
  • Strengthen and coordinate emergency response plans to minimize magnitude and length of disruptions.
  • Develop flood and stormwater management plans to address extreme weather events and sea level rise.
  • Develop drought management plans to address the potential for decreased water supplies.
  • Develop hydropower management plans to address the potential for hydrologic extremes.

Existing or new equipment actions

  • Build redundancy into facilities to allow for continued operation during partial disruptions.
  • Storm-harden energy infrastructure, and/or elevate water-sensitive equipment to address high water levels.
  • Build coastal barriers using green, gray, or hybrid infrastructure to address high water levels.
  • Improve reliability of grid systems through backup power supply, intelligent controls, smart grid, microgrids, and distributed generation to better respond to disruptions.
  • Implement air-cooled or low-water-use cooling systems for thermoelectric power plants to address drought and increased temperatures of water for cooling.
  • Expand the use of non-water-intensive energy technologies (e.g., wind, photovoltaic solar).
  • Relocate vulnerable facilities out of locations that may be inundated.
  • Relocate facilities to areas that have a more sustainable water supply.
  • Add peak generation and power storage capacity to minimize disruptions.
  • Add backup power supply for grid disruptions.
  • Add regional fuel product reserves to address vulnerable fuel supply disruptions.
  • Increase transmission capacity within and between regions to overcome localized disruptions.

Actions to achieve energy demand reductions

  • Improve residential and building energy, cooling, and manufacturing efficiencies.
  • Improve demand-response capabilities of energy infrastructure (for example, a smart grid).
  • Allow flexible work schedules to transfer energy use to off-peak hours.

Oil and gas industry resilience

Big oil companies such as BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobile are pledging to prepare for a “lower carbon” future and prefer to be called “energy companies” these days instead of oil companies, reports NPR.

“There are signs of real resources being dedicated to this promised strategic shift toward renewables. BP just bought a pipeline of 9 gigawatts of solar projects in the United States. Total, a French company, invested billions in a major solar producer in India.

“Governments, investors and the general public are increasingly concerned about climate change and calling for action — calling, in fact, for a wholesale transformation of the global economy, which currently relies on fossil fuels for 80% of its power,” NPR adds. “And European governments are setting particularly stringent policies.”

With more than 350 oil spills for the Coast Guard to investigate after Hurricane Ida, it’s clear that responsible industry should take steps to prevent toxic environmental spills and reduce high emissions resulting from overreliance on fossil fuels.

“Oil spills actually are a pretty common outcome of powerful storms like hurricanes,” says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “There are a couple primary scenarios involving oil spills and hurricanes. The first is a hurricane causing one or more oil spills, which is what happened during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These kinds of oil spills typically result from a storm’s damage to coastal oil facilities, including refineries, as well as vessels being damaged or sunken and leaking their fuel. The second, far less common scenario is a hurricane blowing in during an existing oil spill, which is what happened during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) states its members are committed to continuously improving its hurricane preparedness and response plans.

The API recommendations include:

  • General requirements for the determination and use of meteorological and oceanographic (metocean) conditions for the design, construction, and operation of offshore structures of all types used in the petroleum industry;
  • Guides for the design and construction of new fixed offshore platforms and for the relocation of existing platforms used for the drilling, development, production, and storage of hydrocarbons in offshore areas;
  • Guidance for the integrity management of mooring systems;
  • Guidance for the integrity management of risers; and
  • Guidance for floating system integrity management (FSIM) of floating production systems (FPS), which include tension leg platforms (TLP), used by the petroleum and natural gas industries to support drilling, production, storage, and/or offloading operations.

API guidance also includes industry tips for bringing production back online after a hurricane and steps to prepare for hurricanes for offshore platforms, refineries, and pipelines.

Air quality

 “Nearly 1 in 3 Americans live in a county hit by a weather disaster in the past three months … . On top of that, 64 percent live in places that experienced a multiday heat wave — phenomena that are not officially deemed disasters but are considered the most dangerous form of extreme weather,”The Washington Post reports.

The Pacific Northwest is experiencing “record-shattering temperatures,” and wildfires are devastating millions of acres of forests due to drought.

“Chronic drought pushed federal officials to impose mandatory cuts to Colorado River water for the first time.”

Increased temperatures and wildfires lead to poor air quality.

“The good news is that immediate changes to air pollution levels also have immediate effects,” according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  “Quick action on reducing highly potent, short-lived climate pollutants – methane, tropospheric ozone, hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon—can significantly decrease the chances of triggering dangerous climate tipping points, like the irreversible release of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing Arctic permafrost.

“When addressing air pollution, we also address a critical and easy-to-implement solution to climate change. Short-lived climate pollutants are negative in all senses, and we have proven technologies and policies to economically and immediately reduce air pollution,” says UN Environment climate change specialist Niklas Hagelberg.

All of these factors underline the importance of the Paris Climate Accord and its members’ commitment to limit and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, build resilience, and provide assistance to countries that are not financially able to make the necessary technological changes.