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Michael Recovery: Updating The Power Grid To Withstand Climate Change, Bigger Storms


Utility crews are working to restore power to customers from the Florida Panhandle to Virginia in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Officials are warning it could take weeks in some areas. As we see more and more powerful storms hitting the U.S., it has many thinking about how to make the nation's power grid more resilient. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In Panama City, Fla., right now this is a common sound.


BRADY: People who are lucky to have them are using gas-powered generators until utility crews can fix all the downed poles and wires and restore their electricity. Bay County Emergency Services chief Mark Bowen says that will be a long slog.

MARK BOWEN: This electrical system was taken down to nothing. I mean, 99 percent of it's in the air. And everything that was in the air is on the ground now.

BRADY: Across the entire region, the damage from wind and flooding is extensive, says Scott Aaronson at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities.

SCOTT AARONSON: We are seeing not just where we're going to need to do restoration - that is pick up the wires, reset the poles and just restore power - but actually a full rebuild in some cases.

BRADY: After big storms, the question always comes up - why not put the wires underground, where they'll be protected from the elements?

AARONSON: That seems to be everybody's solution. And if it was that simple, we would have done it a long time ago. But undergrounding is not a silver bullet.

BRADY: It's expensive. Aaronson's organization asked utility customers back in 2012 after Superstorm Sandy how much they'd pay to put the grid underground. Most said they'd pay up to 10 percent more on their utility bills. About 1 in 10 said they'd accept a 20 percent increase. But fewer than that were willing to pay double, which the institute says is a more realistic scenario.

In some cases, putting infrastructure underground can make financial sense, say in a new housing development where wires are installed during construction. But there are other considerations. Underground wires are at risk when there's a flood. And repairing that damage is difficult. Julie McNamara is an energy analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists.

JULIE MCNAMARA: Once a line is underground, it can actually be much more costly and take far longer amounts of time to fix than an overhead wire.

BRADY: McNamara says in flood-prone areas, it can make more sense to elevate grid infrastructure. She says, already, there's a lot of work and planning being done around the country to make grids more resilient. One thing McNamara would like to see more of is independent microgrids with solar power and batteries at places like water treatment plants, hospitals and facilities where residents can't easily evacuate.

MCNAMARA: So we also need to be boosting the resilience of communities themselves, ensuring that critical infrastructure, vulnerable populations can keep the lights on even if the broader power grid goes down.

BRADY: McNamara was lead author of a 2015 report that called for more renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gases from power plants and address climate change. That's a longer-term view of how to make the grid more resilient. But that report was before President Trump was elected, promising to boost fossil fuel industries. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.