Bringing a Group to SB'24? Explore Our Special Rates for 3 or More!

Is the US Energy Sector Prepared for Increasingly Powerful Tropical Storms?

Not only do renewable-energy systems reduce air pollution and carbon emissions — their decentralized nature offers an additional, fail-safe advantage over our conventional power systems.

When Hurricane Ian slammed into parts of Cuba and the west coast of Florida in late September 2022, it left a record-breaking trail of destruction across much of the state; it then regained energy in the Atlantic Ocean and wreaked additional havoc in more the Southeastern US and beyond.

The category 5 super storm was the costliest in Florida history — racking up a bill of over $109 billion — and among the most powerful hurricanes to hit the United States.

Unfortunately, both Ian’s intensity and cost could easily be surpassed in the future as our warming oceans become increasingly capable of supercharging more storms.

Not long after Ian tore through Florida, professor of climate science Mathew Barlow and research professor Suzana J. Camargo published an article in Columbia Climate School’s State of the Planet — explaining how warmer oceans produce more evaporation, which translates to more water being available to the atmosphere. A warmer atmosphere holds more water, allowing more rain — which means more heat is released, making winds more powerful.

In a world of temperatures 2°C above the preindustrial average, which is where we’re heading, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration modeling studies project an average increase of approximately 10-15 percent for rainfall rates within roughly 100 kilometers of a storm; and the global proportion of intense cyclones (category 4 and 5) such as these is projected to increase by 1-10 percent.

In layman’s terms, the coming years will bring a world that is hotter, rainier and windier — with extreme-weather events that cause a lot more damage than most of us have experienced to date, most of which is the result of human industrial activities that have destabilized our atmosphere.

Millions left powerless

Hurricanes and terrestrial storms often wreak havoc on power grids — one of many reasons they can be so costly. Just recently, powerful storms ripped through parts of Texas, leaving over 100,000 homes and businesses without electricity amidst an early-season heatwave.

When asked if US energy systems are currently resilient enough to withstand the increase in powerful storms, Laura Zapata, CEO and co-founder of Clearloop — a Silicon Ranch company working to decarbonize the economy by expanding equitable access to solar energy in communities across the US — told Sustainable Brands® just a few reasons why the country’s aging, centralized energy systems are vulnerable to extreme-weather events: “The systems themselves are prone to overload during times of high demand, leading to shutdowns and an increase in prices. They also rely on imported fuel, making them vulnerable to supply chain breakdowns and shifting foreign policy priorities and circumstances.”

In contrast, she pointed out the efficacy of renewables in an increasingly climate-challenged world, saying: “When Winter Storm Elliott hit the region powered by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in December of 2022, TVA saw the highest winter energy demand in its 90-year history. Silicon Ranch’s [renewable energy] projects in the region continued to operate at peak performance throughout the event, reducing the need for power cuts and increasing system resiliency. Silicon Ranch’s Bolivar Solar Farm was able to power over 300 homes during the storm.”

Are renewables strong enough to withstand hurricanes?

However, these sources of energy may not actually be so resilient in the face of increasingly powerful, and frequent, tropical storms. While they offer numerous, long-term benefits — such as mitigating climate change by reducing air pollution and carbon emissions — solar panels and wind turbines are directly exposed to the natural environment, making them more vulnerable to catastrophic, hurricane-force winds: As a recent article in Nature pointed out, “historical data from the US East Coast and the Caribbean highlight that current solar panels broadly perform below the designed reliability requirement during hurricane events.”

Another issue is that environment-sensitive renewable-energy systems can face a longer and more tedious recovery after a major hurricane has hit. Such was the case of Punta Lima — a wind farm in Puerto Rico that was severely damaged during Hurricane Maria in 2017, losing half of its turbine blades and having to undergo an extensive rebuilding process.

Still, the US Energy Information Administration has stated that — aside from a few exceptions, including Punta Lima — “most renewable-generating facilities survived Hurricane Maria with modest amounts of damage.”

Keeping the lights on

The increasing intensity and frequency of climate-fueled extreme-weather events, especially hurricanes, presents a serious challenge for both the conventional and renewable energy sectors. But since the former has been the main driver of these evermore powerful winds and rains tearing through much of the globe, it is unlikely that it can meaningfully contribute to solutions.

A widespread shift to renewables, on the other hand, will be an important step forward — not only do renewable-energy systems create considerably less climate-changing emissions than fossil fuels; the decentralized nature of renewables offers an additional, fail-safe advantage over our conventional, centralized power systems. As the authors of the Nature article conclude, while large-scale integration of renewable energy will be fraught with challenges in the short term, “the inherently distributed character of renewable energy presents unique opportunities to establish climate-resilient power systems” and “achieving a climate-resilient power system in a net-zero future requires approaches for harnessing the inherent potential of distributed renewables through forming microgrids.”

Now, as Hurricane Beryl barrels toward Mexico and Texas after devastating the eastern Caribbean and Jamaica, it’s imperative that energy sector decision-makers switch from defense to offense — and acknowledge renewables’ role in a resilient energy future.