Then came Irma.
The hurricane nearly wiped the grid out. Some 16 million people in the Southeast were without power right after Irma hit ― 7 million in Florida alone. Nearly half are back online, but millions of Florida Power & Light customers still have no electricity after nearly a week. Some outages are expected to last days or even weeks. In Georgia, there were more than 900,000 outages on Monday; by Wednesday, Georgia Power had restored about half, including more than 300,000 customers in Atlanta. Widespread outages occurred in South Carolina, too, where more than 154,000 South Carolina Electric & Gas customers lost electricity. Over 200,000 Duke Energy customers in North Carolina experienced outages, though most have been restored by this point. Some places in the mountains won’t have electricity until Friday, Duke reported.
The power grid in the Southeastern U.S. is split into two major markets: the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council (FRCC) and the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council (SERC). Florida relies on natural gas, while the rest of the Southeast has historically relied mostly on coal, although natural gas has boomed in recent years. Here’s a map of the various utility companies that operate in the region (The behemoth Southern Company owns many of them).
That monopoly leads to a lot of issues with transmission. Irma damaged all 27,000 square miles of Florida Power & Light’s grid. Sixty percent of its power lines are above ground, so the wind and rain snapped poles in half or trees fell on the wires, knocking them down. Florida Power & Light, which gets 70 percent of its energy from natural gas, operates 6,926 miles of transmission lines and 605 transmission stations, according to the Atlantic. To turn the power back on, crews have to replace nearly 3,000 poles and 950 miles of wire in Florida. But this isn’t just a Florida problem: only about 20 percent of U.S. power lines are underground. To put the rest beneath the surface wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, either ― storm surge and flooding can still damage the lines. It would basically trade one problem for another, some energy experts say.
There’s also the issue of the power plants themselves: unlike Harvey, Irma veered off course and didn’t do the damage it could have to the many power plants along the eastern coast of Florida. The storm did cause ports to close and several major energy companies shut down fuel terminals and pipelines. The state also closed two reactors at a nuclear plant south of Miami before the storm. While crews work to restore power, the Environmental Protection Agency is allowing power plants in Florida to ignore pollution regulations without any penalties.
Florida Power & Light was much more prepared for Irma than it could have been. The company learned lessons from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which knocked out power for more than 6 million people. It installed flooding detection systems at power stations, which have allowed crews to restore power faster, even if it still does take weeks. And yet, for all its talk, solar only accounts for 1 percent of the utility’s energy generation. Earlier this year, it vowed to quadruple that number by 2023, though doing so would require the state to change many of its energy policies.
As warming global temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, all these smart, expensive, intricately-planned technology solutions can be rendered obsolete in an instant. Some energy experts recommend shifting the centralized power grid to a microgrid system, which can keep certain buildings, neighborhoods, or regions online while other areas lack power. Others say energy storage has to be first priority, so that rooftop solar systems are able to work off the grid in times of power outage. More renewable energy-friendly policies have to be put in place in many states ― especially ones in the Southeast ― to allow for any of that to happen. And in all reality, these efforts don’t matter much unless we curb greenhouse gas emissions, fast ― something neither Republicans nor Democrats are pushing hard for in the wake of the recent hurricanes.
All of the decisions about the grid, the climate, and the future of energy hang in the balance. They will likely remain there for the foreseeable future, since President Trump’s administration is resistant to renewable energy and climate policy. However, there are glimmers of hope, especially at the community level: as I was working on various flood-related stories this week, I spoke to dozens of people from both sides of the aisle ― city managers and employees, mayors, sustainability leaders, scientists, people forced to evacuate their homes during the storms ― about how to prevent this from happening again. About what comes next. Even if they agreed on nothing else, there was one, overwhelming consensus: most everyone working on the ground has reached a boiling point.
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