‘Bomb cyclone’ underscores vulnerabilities of the nation’s electric grid

The “bomb cyclone” that hit large swaths of the country left hundreds of thousands of Americans without power at one point or another over Christmas weekend, exposing vulnerabilities in the country’s electrical system.

In Buffalo, NY, power substations froze, leaving 250,0000 homes and businesses without electricity on Sunday morning. Duke Energy imposed rolling outages in North and South Carolina amid increased demand, causing nearly 500,000 to lose power at one point on Saturday.

Outages in the state of Maine reached a peak of 300,000 as strong winds impeded system repairs. Wind and rain also led to tens of thousands of outages in Oregon on Tuesday.

Texas got permission from the Energy Department to skirt environmental regulations and burn dirtier fuel to prevent blackouts after underestimating electricity demand.

Separately, power substations near Tacoma, Wash., were allegedly attacked, causing 14,000 homes to lose power.

The various outages are being caused by a variety of factors: high power demand amid cold temperatures, downed power lines from wind in some cases, and power plants going offline or cutting production.

Varun Rai, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the country’s grid system may not have been prepared because of just how “unprecedented” this extreme weather event was.

“To be prepared, en masse, for a country as large and as heterogeneous in terms of weather conditions and human conditions … it’s pretty unprecedented,” said Rai.

He added that such extreme conditions “expose the gaps” in our system and inform what can be improved.

Rajit Gadh, director of the Smart Grid Energy Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles likewise noted that the system faces several challenges.

“When you’re dealing with large grids like what we have in the US… natural conditions such as high winds, high heat, ice, snow, they can have a significant impact and cause widespread outages,” he said.

“There’s more than one source of challenge for the grid,” he said, noting that problems can come on the transmission side both through power lines or at power plants.

This is in addition to security vulnerabilities from potential attackers.

Still, experts say the country is moving in the right direction.

“I definitely see an improvement,” said Gadh, citing blackouts from decades ago that caused millions to lose power.

He said that he thinks there will be even more improvement with anticipated advancements in battery technology.

Angelena Bohman, who recently received a doctoral degree after researching grid resilience at Carnegie Mellon University, likewise described the US system as “fairly resilient.”

“Many of the utilities in the country are already planning for extreme weather events and put a lot of improvements on their system in place to prepare for them,” said Bohman.

“The problem is it just takes time,” she added. “Many utilities own hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines and if you’re going to upgrade any section of line, you’re doing very small amounts every year and you only have so much money to do that.”

There’s more that can be done.

One such solution includes putting transmission lines underground, but projects like this can be very expensive.

Bohman pointed to a provision in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation signed by President Biden in 2021 that puts $5 billion toward improving grid resilience as a “great start,” but also said that in terms of the needs of the entire country, it’s just a “drop in the bucket.”

Rai, from the University of Texas, also suggested that improving home insulation could be key for lowering demand. He also discussed the importance of efficiency changes at the homeowner level more broadly

“We cannot aspire to solve everything through the grid,” he said. “If you want to give everybody absolute fail-proof electricity and energy supply through the grid that is impossible and extremely expensive.”