Over a week ago, raging winds slammed the U.S. east coast, flooding coastal cities, toppling trees, downing power lines. Here in Westchester, New York, a large county directly north of New York City, most residents lost power for several days and many, like me, for over a week. When my neighborhood was without power it was pretty cold outside. And inside. The day after the storm, driving in a gusty, 25 mile-an-hour wind, we saw 50-year old white pines toppled across roads wrapped in electricity lines like Gulliver falling into the Lilliputians’ tangled web.
Living without electricity resonates strongly right now. At a recent meeting sponsored by the Climate Institute of Washington D.C., I learned first-hand about the North American Supergrid (NAS), a popular proposal to bury a high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission network underground, complementing our existing grid to efficiently distribute electricity throughout the continental United States. Replacing our aging, above-ground grid with NAS would be a vast improvement and move us into the 21st century. The electricity NAS provides wouldn’t be susceptible to destructive storms, like the kind of storm we are increasingly experiencing from the impacts of climate change on our weather systems. You can read ClimateYou’s first report on the Supergrid here.
The NAS meeting featured knowledgeable experts who explained how the underground grid would work in a way everyone could understand. John Topping, CEO of the Climate Institute, gave a comprehensive overview and introduced Charles Bayless, Former CEO, Tucson Electric and Illinois Power. Bayless spoke to the economics of NAS and projected a cost of $500 billion which would be incremental over a 30-year period and paid by rate-payer fees without resorting to federal funds. Also, the project expects to hire between 650,000 and 950,000 workers yearly. NAS would be cost-effective because it would have the ability to tap into any energy provider (think solar, wind), no matter how far away, meaning ample electricity to every state and would greatly reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants. Rachel Levine, Chief Engineer at Climate Institute showed us the nuts and bolts of the project and how most of the underground cable would run parallel to roadways, much like the U.S. Interstate Highway system. The underground super grid would have little environmental impact because of its minimal footprint. Most important: the Supergrid would use fortified hardware to protect against extreme weather, electromagnetic pulses, terrorism and geomagnetic disturbances.
The Supergrid received wide recognition in 2016 when Dr. Sandy MacDonald, one of the world’s top weather scientists, and a group of scientists released an NAS study in the publication Nature Climate Change. The Climate Institute immediately jumped on board and bolstered the study with its own feasibility analyses easily justifying that NAS was a necessity. Organizations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies should be taking notice, especially since Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope’s book “Climate of Hope” cites an HVDC Supergrid as “one of the productive means the U.S. might promote de-carbonization.” It’s time to push forward for more traction with policymakers and investors.
I’m not missing thundering gas generator right outside my bedroom window, especially when it started to growl that it needed more gas. As I huddled around my wood stove five days into the outage, heavy, wet snow was falling and would be 6-8 inches deep by the morning, making any possible repairs to electric lines more difficult, if at all possible. It took ConEd crew much longer to fix the lines and restore power.
Climate change weather models show us scenarios that will get predictably worse. Our century old, above-ground grid has become more and more vulnerable. We can’t just hope the NAS becomes a reality, it has to be built.