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The risks of climate and natural disaster related disruption to the electric grid

News   •   Jul 27, 2017 14:00 BST

The electric grid is one of the most critical infrastructure systems for modern life, but it is also one of the most vulnerable, yet recent graduates of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) supported by Swiss Re have released a study that examines how extreme weather and other natural disasters are evolving in the Pacific Northwest, and the implications for electric infrastructure and potential economic disruption.

Lights Out: The Risks of Climate and Natural Disaster Related Disruption to the Electric Grid,” finds that climate change, expanding populations, and insufficiently diversified energy sources make the future of energy more unpredictable. The US insurance industry has already identified a $20–$55 billion annual financial loss from power outages caused by flooding, hurricanes, and extreme temperatures.

The group focused on the Pacific Northwest as an illustrative case study in climate and natural disaster related electric grid disruption. The region is prone to high-frequency, low-intensity natural disasters such as droughts and flooding, as well as being at risk of catastrophes like the Cascadian Subduction Zone (CSZ) event - an earthquake-tsunami combination that is expected to devastate the coastline from northern California to southern British Columbia. As climate change alters the seasonality of water runoffs in the Pacific Northwest, electricity generation, as well as the operation and maintenance of hydroelectric dams, face additional challenges.

The cost of disasters has increased fourfold over the last 30 years. The total loss of $55 billion a year from unplanned electric outages in the US is more than the US government spends on all federal highways,” said Alex Kaplan, Senior Vice President of Global Partnership at Swiss Re. “We have to think not only about the physical destruction of these assets and the cost to replace them, but also the impact of the extreme weather and how it destroys economic productivity over the longer period of time.

Adverse weather, one type of event that can lead to the disruptions outlined within this report, is the fifth greatest concern for business continuity professionals have, as identified in the Business Continuity Institute's latest Horizon Scan Report, with more than half (51%) of respondents to a global survey expressing concern about the potential of a disruption caused by such an event. Earthquakes and tsunamis were much further down in 18th place, with 25% expressing concern, although these types of event are much more region specific.

Natural disasters and climate-related, severe weather events pose real risks to vulnerable communities and are currently costing billions in damages globally,” said Celeste Connors, a former White House official on climate change and Johns Hopkins SAIS faculty advisor. “Local governments are taking the lead in reducing this risk by investing forward in resilient infrastructure systems. New and innovative financing mechanisms and partnerships can play a key role in helping governments manage their risk.

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