Three days after Hurricane Ida made landfall, roughly 2 million people remained without electricity in Louisiana and Mississippi. Even critical facilities, including sewage pumps in New Orleans and a hospital in rural South Louisiana, have seen outages. These and other incidents underscore just how dependent our civilization is on electricity. In the case of hospitals, access to electricity can be a matter of life and death.
We’ve come to expect these sorts of major outages during extreme weather events. But we can build resilient power systems that can endure severe hurricanes. In order to do so, we need to look beyond simply replacing the same lines and wires or building more centralized power plants.
"We can’t keep rebuilding this same 20th-century grid and expecting it to work under 21st-century conditions," notes Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a ratepayer and clean energy advocacy organization based in New Orleans.
There is a lot that can be learned from places that have solved these problems. From U.S. military bases in Afghanistan to The Bahamas, solar- and battery-powered microgrids have proven that they can provide a higher level of resilience, including during major disasters. These can complement approaches such as "hardening" of existing transmission and distribution assets, and often provide resilience at a lower cost than burying power lines.
If any organization in the United States has pioneered the use of microgrids, it is the U.S. military. As of 2018, the United States had around two dozen microgrids at bases from Cape Cod to San Diego, with more than a dozen more under development. This is a response to the priorities of the Department of Defense, which has described the loss of power in extreme weather events as an "unacceptable impact."
We can’t keep rebuilding this same 20th-century grid and expecting it to work under 21st-century conditions.
Through eLab, RMI has also worked with the U.S. Navy to explore the use of microgrids for military bases. And while many military microgrids are run on fossil-fuel-fired generation, the U.S. defense community has increasingly been moving to renewable energy. Not only has the military been frank about the danger that climate change poses to national security, but it has also identified a key advantage of renewable energy: Solar panels and batteries don’t require fuel to be delivered.
In particular, having secure and independent power supplies are a top priority in combat situations where delivery of fuel can be a key vulnerability, as it was in the war in Afghanistan. But they can also be important in disaster situations, which can disrupt fuel supplies.
Islands on the front lines
Another place that has led with the deployment of resilient solar- and battery-powered systems are islands in the Caribbean. In many cases, it’s because they’ve had to. As the first in the line of fire for Atlantic hurricanes, many islands have experienced losing power over and over again. And the isolation of islands from each other means that electricity often can’t be imported from another island where the grid is working.
Renewable energy is a natural option for islands, as the high and fluctuating cost of importing fuel for both fossil-fuel-fired power plants and portable generators is a significant factor. This is doubly true during disasters, when there can be issues with the availability of fuel during extended outages.
However, in the Caribbean it is also not enough to just install a solar PV array and expect this to survive a major storm. In 2017, Hurricanes Maria and Irma damaged some solar plants in St. Croix, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, while other plants in Puerto Rico and Antigua survived despite suffering high winds.
RMI has used lessons from the solar arrays that survived these and other storms to publish our first "Solar under Storm" report in 2018. This groundbreaking report details how to install solar PV systems in ways that allow them to resist major storms, so that they can provide power when residents need it most. Since the publication of "Solar under Storm," these principles have been used throughout the Caribbean, including in three solar arrays on islands in the Bahamas, as well as in Montserrat and the Grenadines.
The need for resilience in Louisiana
Many of the same circumstances that affect island nations apply also to South Louisiana. For the past two years major hurricanes have slammed coastal areas. Adding to this is the relative isolation of many communities in rural areas, where there may only be one road and one transmission corridor bringing power. This combination of increasingly severe hurricanes and rural isolation make the challenges of maintaining and restoring power significant.
There’s a difference between systems that we build for just emergencies and systems that are Swiss Army knives, like the solar and battery systems that can be useful year-round.
The need for a more resilient power system is not lost on locals. Among the local organizations that have been pushing for more resilient solutions is the Alliance for Affordable Energy. The organization has commissioned a study on the benefits of distributed energy resources, such as solar and batter storage, to help keep the lights on during disasters in New Orleans.
Alliance Executive Director Logan Burke notes that besides not running out of fuel, there are other advantages to using renewable energy over the portable generators that are routine for hospitals and other critical facilities. "There’s a difference between systems that we build for just emergencies and systems that are Swiss Army knives, like the solar and battery systems that can be useful year-round," explains Burke.
But while the Alliance has made a strong case, city- and state-level regulators and state utilities have repeatedly missed opportunities to act on this. Instead, utilities keep repairing the same overhead lines and even furthering investments in gas plants such as the one in New Orleans East — a plant that notably failed during Hurricane Ida and required grid power to resume operations.
For the millions without electricity in Louisiana, it could be weeks until power is deployed, and those residents who don’t have or can’t afford generators are struggling without air conditioning in heat that has reached above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We have proven that there are ways to provide clean power to critical facilities, even during extreme events — whether at military bases, in the Caribbean or in the Gulf South. This belief in the potential of a better system is articulated in the slogan of the Alliance for Affordable Energy: "Solutions Exist." But for these solutions to be deployed, regulators will need to show vision and political will.
Note: The author was an employee of the Alliance for Affordable Energy from 2008 through 2010.