Utility companies need to get serious about improving their infrastructure

  • Oct 19, 2021
  • Las Vegas Sun

Climate change is putting America’s aging power grid to the test, and nature is thrashing it.

It’s an unfair fight. A good portion of the nation’s grid was built in the 1950s and 1960s. It was designed in another time with decisions not acceptable today and had an expected life span of 50-60 years, and hasn’t been upgraded or even properly maintained. It doesn’t stand a chance against the ever-intensifying storms and heat waves generated by global warming.

The result is that power outages across the country are becoming more common amid intensifying storms and heat waves. One study shows that the U.S. now has more outages than any other developed nation.

It’s a problem that will only worsen without public and private investment in fortifying the grid. And while President Joe Biden wants to take a step in that direction by including funding for new transmission lines in his infrastructure package, the real solution lies predominantly with utility companies to harden their systems.

This has become increasingly clear in the aftermath of major disasters in recent years, including:

• Hurricane Ida, which knocked out power though most of Louisiana for days on end as high winds snapped some 31,000 power poles and downed several high-transmission lines. Afterward, energy experts said although the state’s biggest utility, Entergy, had strengthened its grid in recent years, large parts of it had not been upgraded to meet modern standards for coastal areas of being able to withstand Category 4 winds.

• The February winter storm in Texas, which left more than 4.5 million homes and businesses without power and resulted in more than 200 deaths. Federal investigators determined the root cause was failure to adequately winterize the grid. But an underlying factor is that Texas is the only state that operates its own utility system, which is almost entirely unregulated.

• Western wildfires, which exposed maintenance and design problems in the grid in California, where five of the 10 most destructive fires in the state since 2015 were linked to Pacific Gas & Electric equipment. The situation prompted PG&E to launch a $5 billion fire mitigation plan that includes weather stations to monitor for severe conditions, moving lines underground, paring back trees from power lines, and using drones and hundreds of cameras to monitor lines. The result, though, of the poorly designed and badly maintained California grid is that there are deliberate power cuts on windy days that completely shut down entire towns in California.

• Hurricane Maria, which in 2017 devastated the badly deteriorated grid in Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island without power and causing thousands of deaths. It would take 11 months to fully restore the system.

Critics say that in many cases, utilities charged customers for maintenance and upgrades, but then put off that work and put the money into shareholder dividends.

Now, the bill is due for the companies’ irresponsibility, and once again customers are bearing the burden. In Texas, for instance, lawmakers approved a bill raising Texans’ electricity bills for possibly the next 20 years to offset the utility companies’ costs for repairing damages and hardening the grid. Meanwhile, the state’s main utility contends it is immune from lawsuits against it filed by consumers, an issue that hasn’t been conclusively determined by the courts.

Costs associated with power outages are estimated at $150 billion-plus per year in the U.S. — in spoiled food, downtime for businesses, equipment damage and more. And that’s not to mention the human costs in pain, suffering and death.

Tragically, too often the agencies responsible for regulating the power industry are dedicated to maintaining industry profits over public needs and consumer welfare.

Without a stronger grid, these costs will rise. Forecasts call for fires to continue growing in breadth and intensity, and for the number of Atlantic hurricanes to double.

Las Vegas, compared to older cities, is fortunate in that our power infrastructure is relatively new. But the condition of the grid isn’t consistent across the board, and we get our share of power outages as well. Witness the windstorm that darkened the North Strip and other core parts of the valley last week. There’s room for improvement.

On a national scale, things like stronger utility poles and more tree trimming aren’t the only needs. Public utility commissions, state lawmakers and other leadership bodies must dial up pressure on utilities to modernize and maintain their systems.

Utilities need to realize that they’re way behind in the game, and that the mismatch between the grid and the environment is going to get even more lopsided unless they take action. Lives and livelihoods depend on strengthening the infrastructure and keeping the lights on.

and that the mismatch between the grid and the environment is going to get even more lopsided unless they take action. Lives and livelihoods depend on strengthening the infrastructure and keeping the lights on.