A storm hits, and thousands lose power. According to climate researchers, it’s becoming a common scenario as our aging energy infrastructure is exposed to the ravages of climate change, such as heat waves, droughts and floods.

In the tri-state area, storms and flooding are becoming more frequent. Only last year, the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused more than 130,000 households in the region to lose power for about 24 hours. Subway service was shut down. The storm disabled the city in ways that residents hadn’t seen since Hurricane Sandy when millions lost electricity, and a year before that, Hurricane Irene left 200,000 households in the dark.

A study published this month in Nature Energy evaluates the nation’s energy infrastructure and the impacts of climate change on the system, including a rise in prices for consumers. Researchers used hourly data from weather, watershed flows, energy operations and usage — and then linked them together for a detailed view of the vulnerabilities and outcomes for the nation’s power grid.

The report, the first of several regional snapshots, focuses on the western part of the grid, which delivers electricity to the region west of the Rocky Mountains, which is plagued with heat waves and droughts. The New York metropolitan area is part of the grid that encompasses the rest of the country east of the Rockies, where stressors such as heat waves, flooding and storms can also threaten the region’s ability to deliver power reliably.

But because the eastern power grid is interconnected despite the mismatch of state and private companies that operate it jointly, an extreme weather event does not have to happen nearby to affect power. It can happen several states away.

Mort Webster, the study’s lead author, cited the Northeast blackout of 2003 as an example. More than 50 million people lost power in the Northeast and parts of Canada for up to 2 days as a result of a failure in Ohio.

“We know that we’re already feeling shocks and the frequency and severity of these shocks, which are exacerbated by climate change,” Webster said. “They make the system sometimes not function.”

Wildfire burns along Highway 1 near Big Sur, California, January 21st, 2022

Wildfire burns along Highway 1 near Big Sur, California, January 21st, 2022

Wildfire burns along Highway 1 near Big Sur, California, January 21st, 2022
Nic Coury/AP/Shutterstock

Shocks like heat waves and droughts are significant climate change stressors on power generation. An increase of 40 degrees Fahrenheit could reduce power output by up to 0.5%. Extreme heat causes plants to operate less efficiently because of what it does to water.

If the water temperature is too high, about 90 degrees Fahrenheit by federal regulations, or there isn’t enough water, then some plants can’t operate. Power plants utilize nearly half of the country’s fresh and salt water supply to cool the steam used to generate power. If the facilities can’t cool down, they must shut down or operate at reduced capacity if they are at the threshold.

Turning off and on power plants isn’t like hitting a light switch. For example, a natural gas power plant could take a few hours to turn on at a cost of up to $10,000, which includes the labor and the fuel that has to be burned to get it running. The time and cost of turning on a coal plant are about twice that.

While the U.S. currently has a lot of excess capacity built over the last century with more power plants than needed to prevent outages, this infrastructure is aging and vulnerable to extreme weather. Operators must also spend a lot of time deciding when and which power plants to operate when there are unforeseen conditions.

Instead, power plants are shutting down for economic or environmental reasons, according to Webster. The remaining system is quickly becoming dependent on natural gas, wind and solar.

“The problem is that wind doesn’t always blow when the consumer wants electricity, and in the Northeast, the sun doesn’t always shine brightly enough through the clouds to give you all the energy you need when you need it,” Webster said. “And the natural gas system we’re so dependent on is a more fragile system.”

When a plant is unavailable because of a heat wave or a storm, operators must adapt and figure out what plants can be turned on and when.

These strains are compounded by spikes in demand due to extreme weather, like when consumers run air conditioners during heat waves. Energy users have a part to play, too, according to Mark Rodgers, a supply chain management professor at Rutgers University, who wasn’t involved with the Nature Energy study.

“It goes two ways,” Rodgers said. “It has to be behavioral changes and technology. We must try to make efforts in the way we live and consume electricity so that we can do things more intelligently and responsibly.”

According to Rodgers, simply turning off lights in rooms that are not in use or using a thermostat can go a long way.

Extreme cold can have similarly destructive effects, as it did in Texas, which has its own separate grid. Last year, equipment froze, resulting in fuel shortages and widespread power outages in the state.

If you do not plan for climate change in the power sector, generally things are going to be bad for you.

Michael Craig, University of Michigan

For the Northeast, flooding is a serious concern because plants are located near water. All 26 of New York City’s power generation facilities are in storm surge zones, which increases the likelihood of power outages during storms. When a plant is flooded, its equipment ceases to operate, and its fuel supply is destroyed. Sea levels have risen more than a foot in the past century and are expected to rise another 18-75 inches by the end of this century, which means energy facilities could be partially under water if nothing is done.

“If you do not plan for climate change in the power sector, generally things are going to be bad for you,” said Michael Craig, an energy system professor at the University of Michigan who wasn’t involved with the Nature Energy study. “And that is because you have more extreme weather — in particular, extreme temperatures in the future — and that affects different parts of the power system.”

There are also the financial costs of climate change impacts on our energy infrastructure. The study estimated an increase of 3% in electricity costs to consumers, which seems modest, said Craig, but nearly 40% of American households already face high to severe energy burdens and struggle to pay electric bills.

The bottom line of the study is that doing nothing is not an option, but what concerns Craig most is that much of the industry doesn’t even have a plan. He said New York’s power provider, Consolidated Edison, is in better shape than most power companies. It has evaluated its assets and its vulnerability to climate change, and they’re making plans to mitigate these effects, Craig said.

The remedy, experts agreed, is to invest and strengthen the infrastructure now to reduce the constant losses in the system that add up to one outage after another. States and power companies need to collaborate on all the infrastructure they operate within the grid and take the first important step in evaluating their facilities and equipment for climate change impacts.

“Outages are terrible,” Craig said. “They can result in deaths and incur huge economic damages and costs of human well-being.”