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Study Finds Power Stations at Risk From Storm Surge

Charleston, S.C., took a nearly direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Hugo in 1989, flooding much of the metropolitan area and leaving coastal towns and suburbs north of the city devastated by a 20-foot storm surge. Those floods were eclipsed just this month, as Charleston suffered unprecedented flooding during historic rains and high tides.

Charleston suffered unprecedented flooding during historic rains and high tides in October 2015.
Credit: Ryan Johnson/flickr

As rising seas make coastal regions of the U.S. more vulnerable to storm surges and extreme rainfall, up to 90 percent of Charleston’s electric power substations and its only power plant stand to be submerged in floodwaters, leading to widespread power outages should another strong hurricane batter the city, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists analysis published Tuesday.

The report considers how Charleston and other metro areas along the Eastern Seaboard will fare in future hurricanes and nor’easters influenced by climate change and rising seas. Storm surge-related power outages are likely to become more commonplace all along the East Coast, where power plants and electric lines provide electricity to more than 70 million people. Millions more will be threatened as seas rise because of climate change, according to the analysis.

The solution, the paper says, is for utilities to find ways to shore up their infrastructure against storm surges, use more renewable energy sources to keep the lights on when the power plants go down, and build microgrids. A microgrid is an independent small electric grid with its own power generator, stringing together hospitals, schools, shelters and other critical infrastructure so that they can have electricity when the larger power grid goes down in a hurricane.

The paper, which uses sea level rise data compiled by Climate Central scientists, shows that rising seas will allow storm surges to inundate areas farther and farther inland. Sixty-eight electric power plants and 415 major substations along the East and Gulf coasts are vulnerable to storm surge from a Category 3 hurricane today, a number likely to grow as seas rise and storm surges become deeper. The analysis urges regulators to rely less on historical flooding data when planning for future storm scenarios and more on future climate and sea level rise projections.

“Preparing for sea level rise requires looking beyond yesterday’s risks and assessing how these threats are rapidly evolving,” Julie McNamara, a UCS energy researcher and report co-author, said. “Utilities also need to consider clean energy solutions like wind and solar coupled with energy storage that can simultaneously limit the severity of future climate impacts and provide communities with power even when the centralized electric grid goes down.”

The aftermath of the flooding in North Charleston, S.C., caused by over 15 inches of rainfall resulting, in part, from Hurricane Joaquin.
Credit: Ryan Johnson/flickr

Charleston is one of five major metro areas the Union of Concerned Scientists examined in its paper. The city, where some streets already routinely flood at high tide, is one of the most vulnerable to climate change in the U.S. The South Carolina coastline has seen 1 foot of sea level rise over the last century, with an expected 5 more feet to come by 2100.

Charleston isn’t alone. In southeastern Virginia, rising seas threaten 57 out of 132 major power substations in a hurricane. In Miami, 37 substations in and around the city are vulnerable to storm surge today, but by 2070, rising seas will put 119 substations at risk.

The analysis urges utilities to protect their electric equipment and power plants by constructing barriers around them, elevating them or shutting them down and moving them inland. 

McNamara said responding to the threat rising seas pose to electrical infrastructure is a responsibility split between utilities and their regulators. Some regions, such as the New York City metro which was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, have become leaders in planning for future storms influenced by climate change.

Power plant in New York City.
Credit: m01229/flickr

Sandy left more than 34,000 people without power in New York City’s borough of Queens, washed away homes on Staten Island and on the city’s Rockaway Peninsula, and flooded the city’s subway system, submerging parts of lower Manhattan in the process.

New York City responded with a climate change response plan called “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.”

Other regions, such as Charleston, that are even more vulnerable to rising seas and climate change than New York, have been slower to respond to the threat.

“I don’t want to speculate on the effects of future potential storms, but I will say that we have learned from past storms,” Ginny Jones, spokeswoman for SCANA, the parent company of Charleston’s primary utility, SCE&G, said. “Since Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston in 1989, we have positioned new substation sites 14 feet above mean sea level.”

Jones said that during the recent catastrophic flooding in South Carolina, around 15,000 people lost power, outages that were not substation-related.

“We constantly monitor and maintain our infrastructure to keep it in safe and optimum working condition,” Jones said.

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Sea Level Rise and Population Impact Since 1900, sea level has gone up an average of eight inches around the world due to global warming.

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