Climate change won’t stop for the coronavirus pandemic

By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica


Inevitable climate-change fueled catastrophes such as wildfires and hurricanes will increase the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Climate change has amplified the threats of natural disasters over the years and will prove disastrous as the pandemic rages on worldwide
  • The U.S. National Climate Assessment warned that scientists and officials often fail to consider “compound extremes,” meaning the impact of multiple disastrous events occurring at once
  • There are 25 states at risk for major flooding events this spring. Warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico make it likely that a hurricane will make landfall this summer when we are likely to still be fighting the effects of the COVID pandemic
  • If major events occur that force people into evacuation centers, it will be hard to maintain social distancing and nearly impossible to self-isolate, creating an environment where more people can become sick
  • The economic toll of a disaster during this pandemic can raise recovery costs by the billions
  • States should start planning how to handle a disaster during this pandemic by reviewing preparedness plans and disaster response
  • FEMA has stated that it is working on disaster preparedness during the pandemic, but many people are skeptical that its efforts will be beneficial

Increased air pollution from fires and fossil fuel emissions make all of us more vulnerable to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Community energy resilience means power that is clean and reliable, even in the face of power shutoffs during disasters. For a safe and healthy future for all, endorse the Climate-Safe California Platform to implement scalable solutions that can reverse the climate crisis.

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PG&E’s fossil fuel-powered microgrids

by Kavya Balaraman, Utility Dive


  • The towns of Angwin, Calistoga, Placerville, and Grass Valley are part of PG&E’s effort to build a network of “resilience zones” and temporary microgrids in portions of its service territory that are especially vulnerable to fire-related outages. PG&E deployed 23 MW of temporary generation from fossil fuel power (diesel) in the four towns powering fire stations, medical centers, and business districts.
  • PG&E is looking for projects that can deploy between 4 MW and 69.9 MW  for four or five consecutive days without any load drop and be able to meet peak and minimum customer demand throughout that period. Some feel that 100% renewables plus storage is not tenable with these requirements
  • “We think you could do clean energy —​ it’s a mix of generation, batteries and demand response,” Sierra Club’s Amezcua said, adding that PG&E’s plans for its resilience zones needs to be consistent with the state’s air quality and greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

The Climate Center’s Advanced Community Energy program employs microgrids for resilience and carbon-free power with storage.

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Megadisasters devastated America in 2017. And they’re only going to get worse.

by Umair Irfan and Brian Resnick, Vox

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks billion-dollar disasters, noted Monday that the record total came from 16 separate events with damages exceeding $1 billion.

If that seems shocking, consider some of the record-breaking weather events that came our way:

  • California was drenched in the wettest winter on record, ending years of drought.
  • Then came California’s most destructive and largest wildfire season ever. The Tubbs Fire in Northern California killed 22 people and damaged more than 5,600 structures.
  • Hurricane Harvey broke a rainfall record for a single tropical storm with more than 4 feet of rain.
  • Puerto Rico is still mired in the longest blackout in US history after Hurricane Maria struck three months ago. More than 1,000 are estimated to have died in the storm and its aftermath.
  • 2017 was the third-hottest year on record. San Francisco reported its highest temperature ever, 106 degrees Fahrenheit, while other parts of the country set recordsfor high-temperature streaks. For states like Arizona and South Carolina, 2017 was the warmest year ever.
  • 14 places across Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas reported record-high water levelsduring floods in April and May.

Requests for federal disaster aid jumped tenfold compared to 2016, with 4.7 million people registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

You can see the relative scale of these events in the map below, which is based on estimates from NOAA and other sources. (This map doesn’t include the Thomas Fire, the single-largest wildfire in California history, which is still burning.)

Another chart from NOAA shows the that number of billion-dollar disasters in a given year is on the rise (bars), and 2017 reached an unprecedented peak in the cumulative total in damage (gray line):

All told, NOAA’s estimate of $306 billion is very likely conservative — other estimates put the total closer to $400 billion.

But even though the unending string of calamities felt unprecedented, we must see 2017 as an average year, if not a baseline. We must reckon with the likelihood of even worse storms, heat waves, fires, and droughts as the Earth warms — because scientists expect even this “new normal” to get worse.

The reasons for this are many: As the climate changes, the US is becoming much more vulnerable to disasters. People keep flocking to live in places we know are likely to be hit. And our policies don’t protect them, not by a long shot.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from 2017, and what they suggest for how to prepare for future catastrophes.

What 2017 taught us about climate and extreme weather

Climate scientists have been warning about extreme weather, that it would become more frequent and intense in new ways. Yet 2017 still seemed like a brutal wake-up call to nature’s extraordinary power, and the frightening possibilities of this warmer world.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about why some weather is so extreme and how much climate change is to blame (especially when it comes to hurricanes). But 2017 gave us more clues about what we can expect in the world to come, hints that hopefully will help us prepare for the future.

This is what we understand about the connections between climate change and the disasters we saw this year.

Floods and rain

The year started off with torrential rainfall in California, marking the wettest winter in a century. Parched after years of drought, the rainfall officially brought the dry spell to an end as floods inundated hundreds of homes, landslides buried roads, and high water levels threatened to burst dams. Flooding across Missouri and Arkansas in the spring also claimed 20 lives and carried a $1.7 billion price tag.

Rainfall, both the amount and the rate, represents one of the strongest signals of climate change. Warmer air increases the evaporation rate of water, and for every degree Celsius increase in temperature, a parcel of air can hold 7 percent more water.
Average annual rainfall across the United States has gone up by 5 percent since 1990, though there’s regional variation, according to the National Climate Assessment.
Scientists have found that the amount of rain dished out by heavy rainstorms has gone up 10 percent since 1900 due to global warming. Extreme rainfall events are trending upward, and nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have happened since 1990.

And all this moisture-laden air helped drive the powerful hurricanes that made landfall in the United States.

“Hurricanes live and die by the amount of rainfall they make out of moisture,” George Huffman, a research meteorologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told Vox.


“To say this hurricane season has been historic is an understatement,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long told Congress in October.

Harvey, Irma, and Maria all made landfall as powerful Category 4 storms with winds exceeding 130 mph. Harvey in particular dumped a truly staggering amount of rain over Houston. The estimated 24-to-34 trillion gallons that fell there was so heavy it actually depressed the earth more than half an inch in some spots, according to preliminary analysis from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

These are the types of storms climate scientists expect to see more of in a warmer world.

First off, yes: There’s consensus that the science of climate change predicts that in a warming world, hurricanes will become more intense, carry more rain, and cause worse coastal flooding linked in part to sea level rise.

But here’s the thing: We don’t yet currently know, conclusively, that the hurricane season as a whole represents a result of climate change. “At this point it’s really uncertain if there’s any detectable human influence on any hurricane or tropical cyclone metric,” Tom Knutson, an NOAA meteorologist who studies hurricanes, told Vox in October.

There’s just not enough data. Meteorologists have only been tracking hurricanes with satellites since the 1970s. It’s possible that historic hurricane records, which go back to the 1800s, are incomplete or have inaccurate information on wind speeds and size. Considering how hurricanes have been lashing against the Atlantic’s coasts for untold epochs, we just have a tiny slice of data to determine what’s “normal.”

While it’s hard to say if the punishing number and intensity of storms were due to climate change, climate scientists have now determined — in two separate research efforts — that Hurricane Harvey’s record-blasting rains (best measured in feet for much of Houston) were likely amplified by climate change.

“Human-induced climate change likely increased Harvey’s total rainfall around Houston by at least 19 percent, with a best estimate of 37 percent,” Michael Wehner, a co-author on an attribution study recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, said at the American Geophysical Union conference in December. And the corresponding study in Environmental Research Letters concluded that climate change increased flooding by around 15 percent.

Even with climate change, Harvey’s rain was an extremely rare event, expected not to return for thousands of years, Karin van der Wiel, a co-author of the Environmental Research Letters study, said. Still, the odds of seeing such an extreme event have changed, she says. “It’s between 1.5 and 5 times more likely now than in pre-industrial times.”

What’s still not known: Did climate change alter the odds of seeing three incredibly strong storms — Harvey, Irma, Maria — in a row this season?

“We tend to look at [hurricanes] one at a time,” Wehner said. “What’s the probability of having three extraordinary events? What’s the probability of having $250 billion in damage one season? That’s a blind spot.”

Heat waves

In June, the Western US experienced the most intense heat wave ever to strike so early in the year, leading to dozens of flight cancellations. On June 21, Ocotillo Wells, California, reported a temperature of 124 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest reading ever in San Diego County.

Farther north, Olympia, Washington, set a June temperature record of 98 degrees Fahrenheit. The searing heat persisted throughout July in the Pacific Northwest, and was followed by another wave in October, as high temperatures rippled through the Midwest and reached triple digits around Los Angeles, shattering records.


One of the biggest factors in this year’s record wildfire season was, oddly, rainfall.
Vegetation across much of the drought-stricken west eagerly soaked up the surfeit of water from the wet winter, leading to a rapid, vast growth spurt in trees, grasses, and shrubs in the spring. Then summer and fall brought intense heat that dried out these plants, turning the greenery into fuel.

Wildfires began igniting over the summer, sending choking air pollution through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and California. Huge new fires appeared in subsequent months, causing record damage, including the ongoing fires around Los Angeles that are poised to burn the rest of the year. The Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, at more than 280,000 acres, is the largest fire in California history. Across the United States, more than 9.5 million acres have burned to date, making 2017 the second-worst year for fires in terms of area.

But the wildfires that scorched vast swaths of the US this year can scarcely be described as natural disasters, since human activities exacerbated them at every step.
“The context for this is as much about society living in these very fire-prone environments as it is about the climate,” said Tim Brown, director of NOAA’s Western Regional Climate Center. “One significant difference is we’ve had very significant population growth and urban development here since the 1960s.”

And changes in the climate are making many of these wildfires worse. Researchers found that human-caused climate change accounts for 55 percent of the increase in drying out of Western forests, a major factor in wildfires, and has led to a doubling of the area burned.

But as with hurricanes, there is some nuance to climate’s role in wildfires. Rising temperatures and less precipitation have had a bigger effect on fire risk in a temperate region like Northern California but has less of an impact in an area that’s already hot and dry, like Los Angeles County.

At the moment, scientists say they haven’t detected a climate signal in fire patterns in this region. But in study published in Environmental Research Letters in 2015, researchers projected that the area scorched by wildfires in Southern California will grow by as much as 77 percent by the middle of the century due to warming.
Why these disaster cost billions

Worldwide, 2017 is shaping up to be the most expensive year for climate disasters ever. In the US, it’s already the most costly year ever for hurricanes and for wildfires.
Such expensive weather events are part of an ongoing trend. Since 1980, there have been 218 disasters across the United States with costs topping $1 billion. The Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year that inflation-adjusted disaster appropriations have shot up 46 percent from a median of $6.2 billion between 2000 and 2006 to $9.1 billion between 2007 and 2013.

And the price of disaster damage is continuing to go up, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Part of it is that the hurricanes this year really were immense, but they have a bigger impact when they collide with growing cities. As more people compete for real estate, property values have skyrocketed in Florida and California. That means any time a disaster strikes, it becomes horrendously expensive to repair all the infrastructure and personal property.

But it’s still difficult to tabulate the costs of the storms. Many of the dollar values are drawn from insured properties, which represent only a fraction of the devastation. Over the past decade, only 30 percent of catastrophic losses around the world were insured, according to the reinsurance firm Swiss Re. That leaves a gap of $1.7 trillion in uninsured damages.

And for a place like Puerto Rico, still mired in blackout, the estimated $95 billion it will cost to rebuild doesn’t really convey all the suffering caused by the storm. About 43 percent of the island’s 3.3 million residents live below the poverty line, so the dollar amount of the damage may be lower than for places like Houston, Texas, with large homes and expensive industrial facilities.

Now the big question is who pays the bill. FEMA has offered more than $3.3 billion in aid to disaster victims through its Individuals and Households Program and $1.4 billion in public assistance this year. But it’s crunched for cash, as the huge storms and fires have depleted its reserves. An $81 billion emergency disaster relief package for Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and California is likely to languish for weeks as Congress leaves for the holidays.

The disasters will have long-lasting health effects

The disasters of 2017 took hundreds of lives. Hurricane Maria was especially cruel, with estimates of more than 1,000 deaths in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Harvey was responsible for taking 82 lives. The Tubbs Fire in Northern California killed 22 people. There were at least six deaths attributed to heat waves this year.

Yet the toll of storms, fires, floods, and heat on human health can also be more insidious and can linger for years.

Heat is rarely listed as a cause of death, but it can be a factor in heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory arrests. High temperatures also worsen deadly air pollutants like ozone, which is linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

Smoke inhalation from wildfires can also be deadly over time, since fine smoke particles in the air aggravate asthma, provoke inflammation, and strain the heart and lungs.

When concentrations of very small particles of wood smoke pollution (smaller than 2.5 microns, a.k.a. “PM 2.5”) reach above 10 micrograms per cubic meter, researchers find a 7 percent increase in asthma inhaler refills. “But if there’s a 100 microgram per meter smoke day, we’d expect that to go to a 100 percent increase of inhaler refills for the population,” Katelyn O’Dell, who studies the health hazards of wildfire smoke at Colorado state university said. Many of the wildfires this past year created conditions that exceeded this level of pollution.

Researchers expect that as climate change makes wildfires more likely over the course of this century, deaths and illnesses attributed to pollution from wood smoke will rise too, even offsetting gains made from cleaning up emissions from industry.
And the fury of a hurricane can leave people scraped, bruised, crushed, or drowned. When a storm cuts off electricity, other dangers abound. “Just about every interaction with the health system now involves electricity, from calling a hospital for help to accessing electronic medical records and powering lifesaving equipment like hemodialysis machines or ventilators,” Vox’s Julia Belluz wrote in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Disasters are a strain not just on physical health but on mental health as well. “Expect a burden of mental health problems, which will include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s particularly going to impact groups who don’t have access to rapid opportunities for recovery,” Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Vox after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.

After a major disaster, studies find a 5 to 15 percent increase in the incidence of mental health problems among survivors.

“We all have a threshold that if we watch a loved one swept away in rushing water and drown, that can definitely create post-traumatic stress disorder,” Charles Benight, who studies trauma at the University of Colorado, said during the peak of the hurricane season.

We’ve always been vulnerable to natural disasters. But now the climate is changing.
There are few signs at the local or federal level that policymakers are taking the risks of climate change and extreme weather seriously, and some forces are even exacerbating the risk.

Engineers have long known that Houston is especially prone to flooding, yet land developers have acted as though the risk is nonexistent for decades. Future development will need to reckon with a need for better drainage.

As sea levels rise and disaster risks to coastal communities grow, some planners are broaching the idea of a “strategic retreat” from areas that face persistent floods and fires. And based on projections showing these events happening over and over, we should be saving up money to rebuild when these disasters happen again.

But we’re not doing any of that.

Instead, programs like the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program, which helps homeowners pay for damage from floods, ends up encouraging people to rebuild in areas that are likely to get flooded again. In one egregious case, a Houston home valued at $115,000 flooded 18 times in 16 years, costing the government $800,000.

We see similar problems with fire insurance in California, which lets homeowners rebuild a torched home, though some insurers are dropping homeowners in high fire risk areas. And as insurance rates rise, fewer people are buying insurance at all, which ends up passing recovery costs to the federal government.

Meanwhile, the Stafford Act limits federal reconstruction efforts to restoring the status quo ante. That means for a place like Puerto Rico, whose energy infrastructure vulnerabilities were laid bare after Hurricane Maria, there isn’t much room in the budget to make power lines, generators, and transformers more resistant to future disasters.

Even without the threat of climate change, we’ve long known that hurricanes are dangerous. They’ve inflicted grave damage on coastal communities for as long as we’ve had them. Louisiana has long been notorious for flooding, and Arizona renowned for triple-digit heat, and wildfires have always been an iconic part of the American West.

But the climate is changing, and the potential harm from these events is growing. In a recent analysis of climate events from last year, 2016, scientists determined three events — record-breaking global heat, a heat wave over Asia, and a “blob” of unusually warm water in the Northern Pacific — could not have occurred without human-induced climate change. “I’ve never seen that language in a paper until now,” Jeff Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief of Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, which published the report, said. “We’re virtually certain that [these events were] impossible without human-induced climate change.”

So larger hurricanes are coming. More wildfires will ignite. Longer heat waves will sear. And other climate disasters are likely grow bigger, more intense, more expensive, and more frequent. We see them on the horizon. And we need to start preparing now.


2017’s onslaught of disasters stretched FEMA to its limits

by Rick Jervis, USA TODAY

George Haddow hasn’t worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in nearly two decades. So he was surprised to receive an email in September asking him to return to work on a 30-day assignment in one of the country’s multiple disaster zones.

That marked the first time Haddow, now a senior fellow with Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy, had been solicited by FEMA since leaving, a move that underscores the measures the agency has taken to deal with this year’s onslaught of disasters.

“Does FEMA have the capacity as it is formed and funded right now to deal with this type of disaster year?” said Haddow, who worked at FEMA as a White House liaison from 1993 to 2001 and didn’t take the short-term assignment. “This year proves that it does not.”

On many fronts, 2017 has been a record-setting year for disasters, with three major hurricanes striking U.S. shores, widespread flooding and a slew of devastating wildfires. The hurricanes alone caused an estimated $370 billion in damages and around 250 deaths on U.S. lands, making it by far the costliest U.S. hurricane season on record.

The three hurricanes impacted nearly 26 million people, or 8% of the U.S. population. By mid-October, more than 4 million survivors registered for FEMA assistance — greater than the number of people who registered for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy combined, the agency said.

The federal disaster response and recovery agency has been stretched to its limit delivering aid to survivors and helping rebuild storm-wrecked cities. To compensate, it recruited workers from other federal agencies, reached out to retirees and solicited state and local agencies for help. More than 22,300 members of the federal workforce have been deployed to Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

FEMA’s struggles to help impacted communities have been felt from the mountains of central Puerto Rico to the fire-mauled swaths of northern California.

“They got hammered,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “Between Irma, Harvey, Puerto Rico — those are all big events. They leveraged everyone they have.”

In California, FEMA set up a small team in place early on to help survivors of the wildfires that first devoured sections of the state’s wine country in October and later exploded in southern California earlier this month, he said. But as FEMA stretched its workers over multiple disaster zones in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the agency asked California’s emergency management officials for help staffing FEMA centers.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I can’t remember that ever happening before,” Ghilarducci said. “Every piece of everything we have in the toolbox has been leveraged this year.”

As disasters sprouted across the USA, FEMA officials tapped into 3,800 extra workers in what’s known as the Department of Homeland Security’s “Surge Capacity Force,” as well as FEMA reservists, who are on-call for disasters. But when that wasn’t enough, they took the rare move of recruiting workers from other federal departments, who needed to be quickly trained and mobilized to disaster zones.

Still short-handed, FEMA sent out emails to retirees and tapped into the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, or EMAC, a mutual aid agreement with states to share resources during times of need. Over the past six years, FEMA has recruited an average of 1,700 state workers per year through the EMAC agreement. So far this year, they’ve requested 17,790 — or 10 times the recent average. Only 2005 was higher, when FEMA recruited 67,048 state workers, due to Katrina and a string of other storms.

Despite the lack of manpower, FEMA has been getting to disaster zones fast and helping millions of people in need, said Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association. The true test will come when these spread-out disaster zones shift from response to long-term recovery, an area FEMA also oversees, he said.

“The devil in the details is how we work it in the long-term recovery,” Sprayberry said.

Funding has been another challenge. FEMA had only $2 billion on hand for disaster relief when Harvey barreled into South Texas on Aug. 17, according to the agency. Congress has passed two emergency disaster relief bills totaling more than $50 billion since then but need is outpacing funds. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló estimated damages to his island alone are around $95 billion. U.S. lawmakers are considering another multi-billion-dollar request for disaster funding but it may not be passed until next month.

In October testimony to Congress, FEMA administrator Brock Long warned that disasters in the U.S. are becoming more frequent and costlier, due to more destructive storms and a widening gap between insured and uninsured losses.
From 1995 through 2004, the White House approved 598 disaster declarations with a cost of $37 billion in FEMA assistance. From 2005 to 2014, that number jumped to 808 disasters at a cost of $107 billion, he said.

“This unprecedented hurricane season has truly tested us as a nation and tested many of our assumptions about what works in disaster response and recovery,” Long said.

Haddow, the former FEMA official, said President Trump was good at quickly declaring federal disasters to unlock money and resources. But as the disasters piled up, FEMA was rapidly overwhelmed.

“They just didn’t have enough bodies,” he said.


Texas wind turbines went right on turning under Harvey’s impact, as refineries shut down

by Juan Cole, Common Dreams

Extreme weather is in our future. Caribbean hurricanes of the future will be more and more violent and destructive because of manmade global heating. Sea level rise will open the coast to bigger storm surges. The number of coastal floods has already doubled since the 1980s because of people driving their gasoline cars and running their air conditioners off burning lumps of coal. Hotter air over hotter water will have more moisture in it, setting the stage for regular flooding. Hotter water creates more powerful winds within hurricanes.

So the bad news is that a fossil fuel energy system does not deal well with extreme weather.

Even just by Thursday, Harvey had shut down so many oil refineries that it had taken 20% of daily US gasoline production off line. By Friday it was being announced that so many refineries had been damaged that the major pipeline that brings 3 million barrels a day to the east coast, had been shut down. Altogether, 4.4 mn b/d of refinery capacity is off line now. About half a million barrels a day of refining capacity will remain shut down well into next winter.

Reuters quoted a market analyst as saying, “Imports can’t make up for this. . . This is going to be the worst thing the U.S. has seen in decades from an energy standpoint.”

Not only is gasoline going to be more expensive as a result, but the pollution dangers from the damaged refineries are horrific.

But guess what? Texas’s wind turbines weathered Harvey. Some were pushed to the max by its powerful winds, but they just went on making electricity! Turbines shut down if the wind is 55 mph or more, but most wind farms affected by Harvey were able to keep operating. One shut down because the electrical wires were knocked down, not because the turbines stopped working!. On an average day, Texas gets 20% of its electricity from wind. That only fell to 13% the day of Harvey’s landfall.

Harvey also menaced a nuclear reactor, a la Fukushima, but we dodged that bullet this time.

Nuclear reactors no longer make any sense, and they remain dangerous and vulnerable to extreme weather events. Even if wind turbines did get damaged by a storm, they don’t explode or spread around radioactive fallout.

Duke Energy has just abandoned plans for a nuclear reactor and is instead putting $6 bn into solar and wind.

So it turns out that not only would a rapid turn to 100% green energy, as California plans, forestall further global heating, it can help keep us safe during the extreme weather caused by . . . burning fossil fuels in the first place.

The problem of fossil fuels and global heating is only going to get worse. The National Institutes of Health warns,

“The public health impacts of climate change in U.S. Gulf Coast states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—may be especially severe and further exacerbated by a range of threats facing the coastline areas, including severe erosion, subsidence, and—given the amount of energy production infrastructure—the ever-present potential for large-scale industrial accidents. The Gulf Coast population is expected to reach over 74 million by 2030 with a growing number of people living along the coastlines. Populations in the region that are already vulnerable because of economic or other disparities may face additional risks to health . . . The Gulf region is expected to experience increased mean temperatures and longer heat waves while freezing events are expected to decrease. Regional average temperatures across the U.S. Southeast region (which includes Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina as well as the Gulf Coast) are projected to increase between 4 °F to 8 °F (2.2 °C to 4.4 °C) throughout the century. Hurricanes and sea level rise, occurring independently or in combination with hurricane-induced storm surge, are major threats to the Gulf Coast region [11]. Some portions of the Gulf Coast—particularly coastal Louisiana and South Florida—are especially vulnerable to sea level rise due to their low elevation.”


Harvey’s devastation shows the need for distributed energy, microgrids during disasters

by Jeff St. John, Greentech Media

Harvey, the hurricane-turned-tropical depression that’s devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, has also driven home the value of off-grid energy systems, from backup generators to microgrids — and the dire results of failing to have them ready to prevent disasters.

The floodwaters have killed dozens of people and left tens of thousands homeless, and the storm has also knocked out power for more than 200,000utility customers from Beaumont to Corpus Christi. While many residents have had power restored, many others are stuck in flooded areas where utility crews can’t even get to, let alone repair the damage.

That’s left many homes, businesses and industrial facilities no choice but to ride out the outage — or, if they’ve got them, to turn on their own generators. Most of these distributed energy resources (DERs) are just diesel generators in the garage. In a handful of cases, they’re built into a building’s everyday operations, but can also kick on to keep the power in stores and hospitals running through blackouts.

But for facilities like oil refineries or chemical plants, on-site power generation and controls are not just convenient, they’re critical — and their failure could spell catastrophe. That’s the unfortunate situation at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, where floods knocked out grid power and two separate backup power systems on Sunday. That’s left a storage site for volatile peroxides without the refrigeration they need to keep from breaking down, emitting noxious fumes, and eventually catching on fire or exploding.

The 11 Arkema employees left as a skeleton crew at the closed-down plant dealt with the breakdown by transferring the chemicals to nine diesel-powered refrigerated trailers, but eight of those have failed as well, the New York Times reported. Then the employees were forced to abandon their efforts, as the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office requested the evacuationof all people within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant.

Since then, the storage site has been emitting noxious fumes that sent a dozen sheriff’s deputies to the hospital with reports of respiratory irritation, though all have since been released. The EPA estimates that 4,000 people live within a 3-mile radius of the site. Arkema has 66,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, a highly toxic chemical, and another substance, methylpropene, in large enough quantities to require an EPA risk management plan, the Wall Street Journal reported.

On Thursday morning came reports of explosions at the site, although county officials and Arkema executives downplayed the threat in a press conference later in the morning, saying that the loud sounds were more likely to be the “popping” of the vapor release valves on the containers holding the chemicals.

Still, “When they decompose, they will generate heat; and when they generate heat, there’s a possibility of a fire and an explosion,” company executive Richard Rennard told reporters. “This is a very serious issue, and we know that.” Houston-area Republican Congressman Ted Poe told CNBCthat the site could be without power for up to six days.

It’s unclear how the plant’s multiple, redundant backup power systems failed. Arkema executives have cited the “unprecedented” nature of this week’s storm, with record-breaking rains and flooding that inundated the site, including its backup generators, in 6 feet of water.

Flooding has also lead to the closure of 16 hospitals across Texas, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 patients to facilities that remain open, according to the Department of State Health Services. But some of the state’s biggest hospitals remained open, thanks to multimillion-dollar investments designed to keep floodwaters out and power humming.

The Texas Medical Center in downtown Houston, for example, has invested $50 million in a network of floodgates that have kept its 50 million square feet of facilities dry and operating through Harvey. It’s also supplied by a combined heat and power and district energy system from Thermal Energy Corp.

That’s a significant investment, but it pales in comparison to the $2 billion in losses the hospital suffered when it was flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, the hospital’s president Bill McKeon told PBS.

Not all businesses face such a stark financial incentive to invest in backup power and storm resiliency. But there may be a broader market for distributed backup power systems that earn money and cut costs for customers when the majority of the time the grid isn’t down.
That’s the business model behind the natural-gas generators running at 63 H-E-B supermarkets across the greater Houston area. Installed and operated for a small fee by microgrid-as-a-service provider Enchanted Rock, these systems provide reduced utility bills for their stores, and offer opportunities for bidding their energy into markets run by Texas grid operator ERCOT.

But they’re also installed for the express purpose of being able to run in “island mode,” disconnected from the grid. Since Friday, 18 of H-E-B’s storeshave successfully kept themselves up and running in this mode, feeding their generators from underground natural gas pipelines that haven’t been destroyed by winds or floods.

This feature has made natural gas the fuel of choice for most of Texas’ microgrid systems, as compared to the diesel fuel that powers most backup generators. Enchanted Rock has built up a fleet of about 130 megawatts of these on-site generators, and has been able to run them in a way that makes them cost-competitive without subsidies, Thomas McAndrew, the company’s founding partner and managing director, said at Greentech Media’s Grid Edge World Forum 2017 conference in June.

Meanwhile, Texas has a few more advanced microgrids, designed to use on-site solar power, energy storage, and building energy controls in a way that reduces their reliance on fossil fuels. Dallas-area utility Oncor has built a showcase microgrid at its operating facility in Lancaster, and a Department of Energy-funded project at Group NIRE’s facility in Lubbock is seeking to control up to 100 devices, including batteries, electric vehicles, controllable HVAC systems, and binary-switched devices such as water heaters and LED lighting controls. These sites are well out of the way of Harvey’s fury, however.

As the response to Harvey continues, members of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities highlighted the recent approval of Middletown Township’s application for a microgrid feasibility study.

“Superstorm Sandy and the incredible devastation that continues in the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Harvey should serve as solemn reminders that while we have advanced distribution automation, hardened…distribution systems and improved preparedness, we still need to address local energy resiliency systems like advanced microgrids to complete the resiliency circle to help us prepare for the next emergency,” said Board President Richard Mroz.