Severe Weather and the Grid

Uncannily, in a report on "Extreme Weather and Grid Disruptions" that was issued in May and updated on Aug. 30, Evan Mills of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory cited risk manager estimates that a severe Northeast U.S hurricane could result in total costs of $76.4 billion, uninsured costs of $45.1 billion, and 85 fatalities. Those projections are right in line with current estimates of the total costs and fatalities from the perfect storm dubbed "frankenstorm," the combined hurricane and Nor'easter that devastated cities and communities in the U.S.Northeast at the end of October.

According to ten-year-old estimates from the Electric Power Research Institute, displayed by Evans in his report, annual costs to the U.S. power grid from severe weather average $104-164 billion. Estimates of average weather damage to the grid in a parallel report issued by the Congressional Research Service at the end of August are lower but still very substantial: "Data from various studies lead to cost estimates from storm-related outages to the U.S. economy at between $20 billion and $55 billion annually," that report said. "Data also suggest the trend of outages from weather-related events is increasing."

Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and editor of the IEEE's monthly smart grid e-newsletter, has put total annual average costs of power system outages at $80-188 billion. The role of weather in those costs is rising drastically.

Data from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, also displayed in the Evans report, indicate that severe weather incidents affecting the grid climbed inexorably and sharply from 1992 to 2011. The number of such incidents was about 140 in 2011, compared to fewer than 5 in 1992 and about 40 in 1998. Furthermore, the fraction of incidents caused by weather disturbances also has climbed steadily, to about 75 percent in 2011 from roughly 25 percent in 1992.

Evans quotes expert findings that power outages are the leading cause of U.S. business disruptions, well ahead of computer hardware and telecommunications failures, and direct damage from natural disasters.

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