Severe Weather Events to Hit U.S. Energy Hard

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severe weather

U.S. energy infrastructure has been widely critiqued over the years for being outdated and prone to failure. This has become particularly evident in the face of severe weather events and natural disasters, such as winter storms and summer wildfires. Scientists are now worried that these events could occur more often, and the energy infrastructure is not prepared to take this hit. So, how can the U.S. rapidly weatherproof its infrastructure to ensure Americans don’t lose power? 

Severe Weather Events

 In May, Houston suffered the effects of a devastating storm that destroyed windows, blew down trees and flooded large portions of the city. Winds were recorded at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, which is similar to those registered during Hurricane Ike, demonstrating the intensity of the storm. This left 630,000 people in Houston and a further 55,000 in Louisiana without power. After the event, Houston’s mayor, John Whitmire, said that some customers may be left without power for several weeks, at a time when temperatures were set to rise into the 90s. Lingering power outages after severe weather events are common across the U.S., as utilities battle to get their aging energy infrastructure back up and running. 

 Scientists are worried that as the world heats up it could increase the instances of severe weather events. Warmer air holds more moisture, which can result in more frequent, heavy rainfall and stronger storms. In the case of tornadoes, they have not been more frequent or intense but recent studies show that they have been taking place in more concentrated bursts. However, it is still extremely difficult to predict weather trends and if global warming is having an impact on these trends, scientists cannot yet accurately anticipate the result. This means that the U.S. must prepare its energy infrastructure regardless of what’s coming to ensure that people across the country are not unnecessarily left without power for extended periods. 

Vulnerabilities Across the Energy Spectrum

While it is well known that U.S. grid systems are vulnerable to severe weather events, recently, some unexpected damage has been seen with newer equipment, showing the need for greater preparedness. In May, a tornado passed through Iowa, leaving destruction in its wake. The path went through a wind farm and, unexpectedly, it bent a giant, metal wind turbine in two, causing it to go up in flames. This was particularly surprising as modern wind turbines are built to withstand extreme conditions. Energy companies have invested billions in turbine technology over several decades, advancing the machinery to adapt to its surroundings by changing angles or locking the blades.  

It’s not just the grid and renewable energy projects that are being negatively affected by severe weather but also oil and gas operations. The forecast of a strong hurricane season in the Atlantic between June and November is expected to knock several offshore projects offline. Meteorologists believe as many as 20 to 30 named storms could hit this year, up from 20 in 2023. Last year, the storms had little impact on U.S. oil and gas production and only one made landfall. However, if the hurricanes this year follow a different path it could be extremely detrimental to oil production, as well as hit towns and cities across the country hard. 

With crude production in the Gulf of Mexico contributing around 14% of U.S. oil production, and the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast accounting for almost half of U.S. refining capacity, if any of these areas are hit by a strong storm it could result in a major disruption to output. 

What’s Next?

Governments are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change by investing in a green transition. Another way to mitigate risk is by investing in greater infrastructure preparedness across this country. This means building stronger, more durable energy infrastructure and equipment that is less prone to damage in the case of a severe weather event.

In September 2023, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recommended a revision of the standards for power grid and natural gas infrastructure to ensure energy equipment is resilient to storms, winds and extreme heat. This recommendation was based on the findings of a report on winter storm Elliott in 2022, which focuses on the mitigation of energy infrastructure destruction and unnecessary power outages. 

The report emphasizes the importance of completing reliability standard revisions from Winter Storm Uri in 2021, which led to the largest controlled power outage in the history of the U.S. FERC Chairman Willie Phillips stated, “Some recommendations from the 2021 Uri report are still not implemented… It shouldn’t take five winter storms in 11 years to show us the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in.” The FERC also highlighted the need to establish state-level reliability rules for natural gas infrastructure. Only by following these types of expert recommendations can the U.S. gradually prepare its energy infrastructure for the future and ensure consumers do not unnecessarily suffer. 

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Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.

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