Summer of Storms Tests Energy Resilience

Lawmakers, administration battle over what it means to rebuild

A downed electric pole sits in mud more after Hurricane Maria hit the island in October 2017. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A downed electric pole sits in mud more after Hurricane Maria hit the island in October 2017. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Posted November 8, 2017 at 5:02am

While the Trump administration proposes to make the nation’s electric grid more “resilient” by propping up nuclear and coal-fired power plants, a wide range of energy advocates say there are better — and greener — ways to achieve the same goal.

And they are urging leaders to heed the lessons provided by the massive storms that took down electricity lines in parts of Texas and Florida and left U.S. island territories in the Caribbean in the dark for weeks.

Some lawmakers are already stepping up calls for a more resilient electricity grid that can withstand extreme weather events like strong winds and flooding. Those calls are coming not just from Democrats, but from Republicans who have typically shied away from addressing climate change effects.

While Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused power blackouts and left electricity poles and lines strewn across streets when they hit the U.S. mainland, the damage was quickly fixed and power was restored in just days.

It was a different story for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where large parts of the populations remain without electricity.

To be sure, those islands already had rickety electricity infrastructure, and experts had long warned that a major storm would be devastating. Puerto Rico’s electricity grid is more than 40 years old and has been poorly managed, with corrupt leadership and $9 billion in debt.

After mostly restoring power knocked out by Irma, the stronger Maria pummeled Puerto Rico for hours, virtually destroying its already delicate electric system. By late October, around 70 percent of Puerto Rico was still without power, and it could take months before electricity is fully restored.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso said many Republicans and Democrats who have visited Puerto Rico are in agreement about building a stronger grid there.

Watch: Members of Congress Talk Hurricane Irma

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“It seems like the real challenge is electricity and trying to [rebuild] an electricity power plant that is stable, which has not been the case prior to this,” the Wyoming Republican said.

President Donald Trump campaigned partly on the promise to spend $1 trillion rebuilding America’s infrastructure. While no infrastructure package has been introduced, Barrasso said he would back a proposal that includes spending on a grid that is more resilient after extreme weather events. “From the standpoint of energy infrastructure, I think that is an important component of infrastructure overall,” he said.

At an Oct. 31 hearing about federal response to the storm, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson said Puerto Rico’s power gird needs a long-term plan.

“It was weak, it was fragile before the hurricane, and now it’s offline. What money we spend hopefully can be spent in a manner that we create a more resilient electrical grid that will power a vibrant economy in Puerto Rico for generations to come,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, made a similar point on the Senate floor, saying she wants to explore ways to rebuild an improved electric grid in Puerto Rico “so it does have a resiliency and does have a sustainability that I think is imperative moving forward.”

Aging grids

While lawmakers have focused on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, much of the U.S. energy system predates the 21st century, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most transmission and distribution lines were built in the 1950s and 1960s, had a 50-year life expectancy and are unprepared to withstand severe weather events.

More than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity, according to ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, which awarded the country’s energy infrastructure a grade of D+.

“Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions,” the group cautioned.

Despite such warnings, Trump in August revoked federal flood risk management standards put in place by the Obama administration. The standards, issued through an executive order in January 2015, required that federally-funded projects meet certain requirements in order to “improve the nation’s resilience to current and future” risk of flooding.

Trump’s executive order to cancel the flood planning standards irked even some in his own party, with the conservative R Street Institute calling the move “shortsighted and ill-considered” and warning it would put taxpayers on the hook for expensive costs associated with damage from floods.

“Cutting investments in effective disaster mitigation only serves to exacerbate that problem over the long term,” R Street senior fellow R.J. Lehmann said in an August news release.

In October, South Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Sanford led a bipartisan group of 14 other lawmakers in writing a letter to White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn asking for an improved federal flood-ready infrastructure standard.

“The unprecedented damages caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria underscore the need for a stronger federal flood standard that ensures our nation’s infrastructure is better able to withstand the impacts of flooding,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter — signed by Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of Texas and GOP Reps. Ed Royce of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, among others — argues that without a plan for extreme weather events in federally-backed infrastructure projects, taxpayers would have to foot the bill for repeated repairs.

The case for renewables

When it comes to Puerto Rico, some have proposed the introduction of renewable electricity sources such as solar to the island, which heavily depends on costly imported oil for its power generation.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, which experienced blackouts statewide for a few days after Hurricane Irma, said renewable electricity in Puerto Rico would have helped restore power to residents sooner after Maria.

Nelson visited Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria. The infrastructure, he said, “was old and decrepit in Puerto Rico, but we obviously need to utilize renewable fuels such as solar. ”

When Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in October, he faced questions about the agency’s proposal to prop up coal and nuclear energy over other sources.

The Department of Energy proposal would change electric market rules in a way that could make residential, commercial and industrial electricity consumers pay higher rates so that coal and nuclear power plant owners can keep them operational amid competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables such as solar and wind.

The proposed rule would financially reward nuclear and coal because, the administration argues, they bring “resilience” and “reliability” to the electric grid.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce panel, isn’t so sure. “If you’re truly concerned about reliability and resilience, then the discussion we need to have should center around the nearly 90 percent of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands who are without power,” he said, adding that Congress must write legislation to ensure that the badly damaged systems are rebuilt stronger and much more resilient than before Maria struck.

“We can’t simply replace outdated infrastructure with the same materials and the same technologies as we did after Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “This is an opportunity to modernize the grid in these areas so they’re more prepared for the next major storm that will inevitably strike.”

Pallone’s call for rebuilding a stronger grid echoed pleas made by Puerto Rico’s nonvoting delegate, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, to the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over U.S. territories. She attended an Oct. 4 forum organized by committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah to consider ways to speed the island’s recovery.

Simply rebuilding the power grid is not enough, she said. “When the next hurricane hits, it will have the same problem, so we need to get ahead of that.”

She asked lawmakers to create exceptions to Federal Emergency Management Agency rules that require rebuilding to previous conditions so that the islands can upgrade their power grids as they reconstruct after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Bishop has said he plans to explore ways to strengthen the electric grids of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will push for such legislation in Trump’s promised infrastructure package.

“I think it’s worth pursuing,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat. “The adversity is this terrible hurricane, but the opportunity is to take an inefficient old electric generating system and grid distributing system and turn it into something worthy of the 21st century.”