Power Plants and Electric Substations at Risk of Outages from Storm Surge

Five Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast Regions Analyzed, Showing Significant Amount of Infrastructure Exposed to Category 3 Hurricane Storm Surge

Published Oct 27, 2015

Washington (October 27, 2015)—Three years ago this week, Superstorm Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., causing billions of dollars in damage and leaving more than 8 million people in 21 states without power as electric substations, power plants and other electricity infrastructure were flooded by storm surge. Hospitals had to evacuate patients, sewage treatment plants spilled raw sewage into waterways, and customers were unable to fill up at gas stations. The potential for similar widespread outages along the East and Gulf coasts remains high and exposure is only expected to grow in the decades ahead, according to an analysis released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

In response to the outages and mayhem that ensued after Sandy, some power providers along the East Coast began making their infrastructure more resilient to storm surge flooding—a risk that’s growing as sea levels rise and North Atlantic hurricanes become more intense due to climate change. 

“It’s heartening to see some cities, states and utilities taking climate change more seriously by conducting vulnerability assessments and making investments to reduce potential outages from flooding,” said Steve Clemmer, director of energy research at UCS and report co-author. “Unfortunately, these examples are few and far between. When the next major hurricane hits, we are likely to see extensive outages as most utilities have not taken sufficient steps to protect their coastal infrastructure.” 

The UCS analysis, “Lights Out? Storm Surge, Blackouts, and How Clean Energy Can Help,” looked at how power plants and substations are likely to be affected by storm surge flooding from various categories of hurricanes now and in the future in five metropolitan regions, including the Delaware Valley, southeastern Virginia, the South Carolina Lowcountry, southeastern Florida and the central Gulf Coast. (See maps showing the regions’ power plants and substations at various inundation levels at different points in time.) The analysis found that if a Category 3 hurricane hit these regions today, 68 power plants and 415 major substations could be flooded unless the utilities that own the facilities have taken sufficient steps to protect them. The share of exposed substations ranged from 16 percent in southeastern Florida to nearly 70 percent in the central Gulf Coast. 

For some towns and cities along the coast, the numbers are even worse. In Norfolk, Va., for example, the analysis found that 15 of 18 major substations, or more than 80 percent, could be exposed to flooding from a Category 3 storm today. In Charleston, S.C., 14 out of 16 substations, or nearly 90 percent, and the only power plant in the city would be in the path of anticipated storm surge.       

Power outages can become widespread once more than a handful of generators or major substations are knocked offline. In all regions examined, the analysis found evidence of the potential for such widespread losses if electricity infrastructure is unprotected, as floodwater depths could reach 5 to 10 feet, and even 10 to 15 feet at many exposed sites. 

“Commonsense says utilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida should prepare for a Category 3 hurricane,” said Clemmer. “These states are no stranger to hurricanes that severe, as painfully demonstrated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. South Carolina and even mid-Atlantic states should also protect against the flooding a Category 3 hurricane could bring because storm damage risks are growing.” 

As sea levels rise, coastal flooding from severe storms will reach further inland, and infrastructure in its path will be submerged at greater depths, Clemmer pointed out. The analysis found, for example, that in southeastern Florida, the number of major substations exposed to flooding from a Category 3 storm could more than double by 2050 and triple by 2070. 

“Coastal residents in these places and elsewhere on our coasts should be asking their utilities—and the commissions that regulate them—what they’re doing to protect their power plants and substations from current and increasing flood risks,” said Clemmer.

The report recommends that utilities consider adding more protective measures such as natural and artificial buffers, elevating key infrastructure, and shutting down or moving facilities away from the coastline when upgrades are cost prohibitive.  

“Preparing for sea level rise requires looking beyond yesterday’s risks and assessing how these threats are rapidly evolving,” said Julie McNamara, an energy research associate at UCS who co-authored the report. “Utilities also need to consider clean energy solutions like wind and solar coupled with energy storage that can simultaneously limit the severity of future climate impacts and provide communities with power even when the centralized electric grid goes down. Homeowners and businesses can also benefit from these clean energy systems as an alternative to investing in dirty back-up diesel generators that are prone to failure.”

Some states are already funding clean energy projects to provide back-up power when storms cause outages. For example, the Florida SunSmart E-Shelters program is providing school-based emergency shelters around the state with electricity from solar photovoltaics and battery systems.  

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources’ Community Clean Energy Resiliency Initiative will provide $40 million over the next several years for municipal clean energy projects that use batteries coupled with solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, microgrids and combined heat and power to supply back-up power to water and wastewater treatment plants, emergency shelters, police departments and communications facilities. When it’s not an emergency, these clean energy projects are also valuable for generating electricity for everyday use.