It’s been two days since Hurricane Isaias swept over the U.S. East Coast, but thousands of people are still without power. In Massachusetts, National Grid estimates some may not have their utilities back on until Saturday afternoon. In parts of New York City, which is facing its largest power outage since Hurricane Sandy, Con Edison has said service won’t be fully restored until Sunday evening.
In the scheme of things, Isaias wasn’t a particularly notable storm. Sure, it was a hurricane at landfall, but it wasn’t overly large and didn’t set any rainfall or wind records. Yet it still shocked a region stung by Sandy just eight years ago. And it stands as a warning about future of stronger, more violent storms ahead as the climate crisis worsens. Amid the ever-worsening climate crisis, we will see more outages in the future if we don’t take steps to prepare critical infrastructure now.
“We have a dinosaur energy system,” Jean Su, energy justice program director at the U.S. Centre for Biological Diversity, said. “These power lines, some of which were put in 110 years ago, are so vulnerable to hurricanes... and utilities did little to keep up with new technology and what’s more, it didn’t keep up with the climate crisis.”
Many utility companies have failed to maintain infrastructure, let alone prepare for our bleak climate future. New York City’s Con Edison, for instance, has caught a lot of heat for failing to maintain and upgrade the grid, even after it saw its largest power outage in history caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“After Sandy... the state mandated that Con Ed perform a $US4 ($6) million study on how to improve reliability during heat waves and other extreme weather events by 2014,” Aaron Eisenberg, a campaigner the New York chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, which is pushing for Con Edison to become publicly owned, said. “They still haven’t [implemented] it.”
Some basic steps, such as burying power lines underground, could make the grid more resilient. We could also store energy to use when hurricanes hit. Building out microgrids, which can operate independently of the main electrical grid indefinitely, could also play an important role.
Su believes the best way to ensure that people have access to electricity during hurricanes is to end the monopoly massive utility companies have to deliver power. Con Edison, for instance, is the only electricity provider that nearly 3.5 million people have access to. Breaking its grip could help people access electricity whether there’s a hurricane or not and do so in a way that might lower bills.
“That looks like rooftop solar and community solar,” she said. “Those are the types of systems that can actually withstand storms and withstand heat waves, because you have the ability to generate it directly yourself, and you don’t need to be relying on a large utility.”
Utility companies aren’t thrilled about the idea of reducing reliance on them — or on fossil fuels. A June report found that energy providers across the country have aggressively lobbied to fight community solar. Across the country, they have fought climate action to protect their massive investments in fossil fuels. But if utility companies continue to delay climate adaptation, the consequences could be massive, because power outages aren’t just inconvenient.
They also pose a public health threat whether its downed live wires that can shock people or outages that can cause vital medicine and food to go bad without refrigeration. Outages are especially dangerous during bouts of extreme heat when the need for cooling is highest, particularly for senior citizens and children. Since hurricane season coincides with summer, heat and outages can often occur in tandem. Upgrading our grid, then, is a matter of life or death.
Update, 7/8/20, 4:00 a.m. AEST: Eisenberg misspoke, saying Con Edison hadn’t completed the 2014 review. It has, but the utility has failed to implement it. This post has been updated to clarify that point.