Hurricanes are a leading cause of major power outages in the U.S., impacting millions of customers in recent years. Utilities in hurricane-affected states have invested in ways to better equip their grids to withstand and rapidly recover from hurricanes. For example, some utilities have elevated equipment to protect grid infrastructure from flooding.
But a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Department of Energy (DOE) should create a plan to better guide its efforts and to better inform utilities about available resources.
Since 2012, utilities have taken steps to improve grid resilience to severe hurricanes, such as implementing storm hardening measures to enable the grid to better withstand the effects of hurricanes; adopting technologies to enhance operational capacity and help quickly restore service following disruptions; and participating in mutual aid programs with other utilities and training and planning exercises. For example, utilities have implemented storm hardening measures that include elevating facilities and constructing flood walls to protect against storm surges. Utilities have also adopted technologies that enhance communication capabilities and monitor systems to detect, locate, and repair sources of disruptions. However, these utilities have reported challenges justifying grid resilience investments to obtain regulatory approval, and some utilities have limited resources to pursue such enhancements.
Various federal agencies can provide funding for efforts to enhance grid resilience to hurricanes, including the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, GAO found that eligibility for most federal funding for grid resilience, including some USDA and FEMA funding, is limited to publicly owned utilities and state, tribal, and local governments.
DOE does not provide direct funding for grid resilience improvements, but it has efforts under way, including through its National Laboratories, to provide technical assistance and promote research and collaboration with utilities. GAO found that DOE has also initiated preliminary efforts to develop tools for resilience planning, including resilience metrics and other tools such as a framework for planning, but noted that DOE does not have a plan to guide these efforts. In addition, DOE lacks a formal mechanism to inform utilities about the efforts of its National Laboratories. Such a mechanism would help utilities leverage existing resources for improving grid resilience to hurricanes.
GAO recommends that DOE establish a plan to guide its efforts to develop tools for resilience planning, and develop a mechanism to better inform utilities about grid resilience efforts at the National Laboratories. DOE concurs with the recommendations, but GAO says its plans to address them do not go far enough.