On Aug. 1, 2011, a feral heat wave grasped Texas by its drought-parched throat. Temperatures remained over 100 degrees for 40 days—dozens of people died. Air conditioners all over the state struggled valiantly to cool buildings—much of their effort leaked out into the hot Texas sky. Then, one by one, twenty power plants–primarily natural gas peaker plants—winked out because of the temperature. The cost for a kilowatt (kWh) of electricity during the afternoon peak reached $5,000. While inland wind was also low during the heat wave, coastal breezes kicked up. Wind power barely kept the grid operator from having to black out neighborhoods. Grid operators conceded that equipment failures in such heat were to be expected. The irony here is that the power plants which failed—inefficient peakers with a high cost per kWh—are justified on the basis that they will be required only occasionally, during extreme weather—but apparently are not designed to be available in those very circumstances!
A quarter of U.S. coal fired power plants this winter are operating with less than half their necessary reserve supply of coal, making the entire national grid vulnerable in the event of a severe weather event. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Remember this episode the next time you hear—or read—that we can’t progress to 100 percent clean energy because the centralized, fossil grid is more “reliable.” Our current coal and natural gas reliant grid is anything but reliable. The Galvin Electricity Intiative led by former Motorola CEO Bob Galvin and former Edison Electric CTO Kurt Yeager, describes the grid as “Aging, unreliable, inefficient, insecure and incompatible with the needs of a digital economy … each day roughly 500,000 Americans spend at least two hours without electricity. Brownouts, power spikes and even minor blips can bring high-tech production lines to a halt. Such impurities and failures cost business and consumers an estimated $150 billion a year. Moreover, the system is vulnerable to terrorist attack, major storms and even moderately turbulent weather.”
Heat waves are not the only source of fossil power vulnerability. Only six months before the 2011 heat wave, Texas had lost 80 power plants to an ice-storm. During last year’s three day freezing U.S. polar vortex, with temperatures 20-30 degrees lower than normal, demand soared across the Midwest and East. Simultaneously, more than 35,000 megawatts of electricity capacity failed; about half was due to inadequate fuel supply, either frozen coal piles or natural gas supply shortfalls; the other half was due to equipment freezing in the severe cold. (Significant brown-outs were avoided only because of demand response management—clean power to the reliability rescue again).
Water shortages can cripple both fossil and nuclear power. In 2013 and again in 2014 coal power plants in Maharashtra, India, were shut down due to a lack of cooling water. The State of Chattisgarh had to shut down its Sipit coal plants in 2008 due to drought. In 2003 Electricite de France had to shut down a quarter of France’s nuclear power fleet because of water temperatures. In June 2014 California lost more than a gigawatt of natural gas capacity because of a drought-induced shortage of cooling water. Last August Connecticut had to shut down a nuclear plant because of water temperatures too high for cooling.
Lots of rain doesn’t help either. This July Serbia lost 45 percent of its coal production due to flooded mines. From 2010-2013 floods routinely slashed coal production in Queensland, Australia, driving up global coal prices dramatically and forcing importers like India to reduce generation and cut off consumers.
Each fossil fuel power plant sits at the end of a long supply chain; these often fail. Even the utility industry is making the argument that its natural gas powered fleet does not have access to sufficiently reliable gas pipeline capacity. A quarter of U.S. coal fired power plants this winter are operating with less than half their necessary reserve supply of coal, making the entire national grid vulnerable in the event of a severe weather event. In 2013 Pakistan experienced routine 20-22 hour black-outs and load shedding because its gas-fired power plants could not access enough fuel.
This August 55,000 megawatts of generating capacity in India were shut down due to coal supply shortage or breakdowns. Yet the U.S., Pakistan and India are among the countries with the world’s largest coal reserves.
Indeed, so unreliable is the centralized, fossil dependent grid that both its operators and customers have to overbuild generating capacity to deal with these failures. Utility systems are routinely expected to have 15 percent surplus capacity above expected maximum load to deal with outages, and often maintain more than 30 percent. A full 20 percent of the total electric load in the U.S. is backed up with on-site generators, mostly diesel, because facilities like hospitals, prisons, data centers, airports and research laboratories cannot tolerate the routine power outages that they experience from grid power.
So why (Big Carbon propaganda aside) do we keep reading about unreliability as the problem with a 100 percent clean power future? The media confuses, (and is encouraged to confuse) intermittency with unreliability. A full moon is intermittent—and so are eruptions of Old Faithful. But we would not describe either of them as “unreliable.”
Wind and solar are similarly intermittent but reliable. (Geothermal, small hydro and efficiency are neither intermittent nor unreliable.) The number of hours a year they generate at peak capacity is smaller than for a typical natural gas, coal or nuclear power plant—if that conventional plant has fuel and doesn’t break down. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know how many electrons renewables will yield each year, nor that those electrons necessarily cost more—after all, the fuel is free. Increasingly renewables have raced “grid parity” and now cost less than fossils is many markets.
And clean power is less vulnerable to equipment failures, extreme weather or disruption of fuel supply chains than coal, natural gas or nuclear. Indeed, after really extreme weather events, like Hurricane Sandy or Typhoon Hudhud, the only electric power that was available, sometimes for weeks, were pockets of renewable energy.
And electric demand is intermittent as well—with solar generating peak power at exactly the moment when air conditioning load, or irrigation pumping is the highest—so that in California solar power has eliminated the need for summer afternoon peaker plants. In Africa and India, many earnest discussions of how “unreliable” solar power is take place in grid powered meeting rooms where, during the meeting itself, power is shifted from a grid which has failed to local diesel generations. But outside those rooms solar panels on poor people’s houses continue to operate.
Reliable, but intermittent generation, like wind and solar, requires different load balancing strategies than coal power at risk from fuel disruptions, or nuclear which can break down for months or years at a time. Clean power needs short-term storage, to deal with variations in wind and solar generation from clouds or gusts, and a better connected set of wires so that as wind in West Texas dies down consumers simply draw on coastal winds which are kicking up.
But overall the reliability problems with a clean energy future will be smaller than if we keep trying to drag out our dependence on fossil fuels. The chart below—which is based on experience globally—suggests why. There are simply a lot more ways that a centralized, fossil fuel grid can let consumers down than there are with a clean energy, heavily distributed grid.
VULNERABILITY OF GENERATING TECHNOLOGIES TO DISRUPTORS
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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