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Fortified grid is key to weathering storms

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Duration of power outages after natural disasters can be cut down significantly

Almost two weeks after suffering a staggering collision with Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is in the throes of an agonising humanitarian disaster.

The storm left at least 16 dead and the entire island without power; most people won't get their lights back on any time soon. More than half of its residents remain without drinking water.

Hospitals cannot function. Supermarket shelves are empty and few gas stations are open. Communication networks are crippled, and first responders are struggling to make contact with residents in remote or heavily affected areas.

Countries need a dedicated national effort to fortify their electrical grids so that they can get back online more quickly after inevitable, and increasingly severe, extreme weather events. Natural disasters happen, but often the catastrophes that follow are man-made.

Just a few weeks ago, 11 senior citizens died in Florida following prolonged heat exposure due to power outages in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Similar catastrophes were suffered in the wake of many other storms, including Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

The centralised electricity grid is widely vulnerable to threats, both natural and man-made. Flooding can submerge and damage equipment, as it did throughout the north-east during Sandy; heavy winds can rip down trees and power lines, as was seen throughout Florida from Irma; and extreme heat and forest fires can wreak havoc on transmission lines.

That is why the focus must be on electricity grid resilience. It is impractical and impossible to stop all outages from occurring. But it is possible to design the system such that when the power does inevitably fail, fewer people are affected from the outset and power is restored more quickly for the rest.

In Florida, policymakers directed the state's utilities to "storm harden" their systems following the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. One decade and several billion ratepayer dollars later, Irma gave people a chance to see their increased utility bills at work.

The result: an astounding 6.7 million customers - or nearly two out of every three in the state - were plunged into darkness. Even though all those Floridians lost power, the utilities were able to get over one million back online overnight, and millions more restored within a few days with help from crews from across America.

Other initiatives can be more technologically complex. For example, by installing sensors and grid automation throughout the system, utilities can pinpoint when and where an outage has occurred and reroute systems to reduce the number of people without power.

Similarly, flood monitoring equipment can alert a utility when critical infrastructure is at risk of inundation, allowing the equipment to be pre-emptively turned off to improve post-storm repair times.

The fact also remains that some services are far too critical - drinking water, first responders, communications - for some populations, such as the elderly, disabled, or low-income, to tolerate even a day without. For these people and services, a resilient grid is not enough.

So what does this mean for Puerto Rico?

Reports suggest parts of the island could remain without power for months, potentially impacting millions of people. This is unacceptable.

Now, across the globe, nations must pool together resources for a swift response to curtail the devastating crisis at hand. Countries must also ensure that as the decimated power grid is pieced back together, the latest catastrophe - and the far too many that preceded it - was not suffered in vain.


Julie McNamara is an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.