Our electricity grid is much more resilient than that of Texas, partly because we pay to keep it that way in our monthly utility bills. Unlike Texas, we belong to a multistate power grid with more resources overall and have the ability to import power in a pinch from neighbors such as New York or the Carolinas.
“If Maryland, doesn’t have enough energy, [the grid] will dispatch it from another state,” said Jason M. Stanek, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission. “We pay for all this heightened reliability and resiliency, but it’s showing benefits and returns.”
A more likely problem for us would be a hurricane or ice storm that knocked so many power lines and other equipment that it would take an extended period to get everybody back online. In other words, the power would be available on the grid — which it wasn’t in Texas — but utilities couldn’t deliver it to homes and businesses.
Some of our utilities, especially Pepco, had dreadfully bad outage records in the past but have improved their performance under pressure from the public. Pepco says its frequency of electric outages has dropped by 68 percent over the past 10 years.
“They have done an effective job in vegetation management and some undergrounding and hardening of overhead wires,” D.C. People’s Counsel Sandra Mattavous-Frye said.
Water problems are of bigger concern here, as we face challenges from flooding and, eventually, droughts. The District is spending billions to build giant storm water tunnels to handle the overflow during increasingly frequent intense rainfalls. That will help reduce backups that filled scores of basements with sewage in Northeast Washington as recently as September.
But the storms are getting so strong that some will probably overwhelm the system.
“Flooding is the great risk here,” George S. Hawkins, former general manager of D.C. Water, said. “We’re far more likely to face one of these big storms churning up the Chesapeake and hitting us square on. . . . Even those huge tunnels, at nearly $3 billion in cost, will not be big enough if the storm is big enough.”
Paradoxically, the region also risks facing water shortages in coming decades as its population grows and climate change leads to longer and more intense droughts. But local utilities are planning to build reservoirs — mostly in former stone quarries — to head off the problem.
Our region’s electric grid is better protected than that of Texas for three primary reasons:
●Maryland, Virginia and the District are all part of a sprawling electric transmission system called PJM, named for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. It comprises all or parts of 13 states and stretches as far west as Chicago.
PJM is one of the world’s largest wholesale electricity markets, plus it’s connected to neighboring networks. Texas refused to fully connect its grid to its neighbors to avoid federal regulation — a stubborn act of independence that looks pretty stupid today.
●Our utilities charge us extra to pay for PJM to have enough spare generating capacity to avoid power shortages. The charge for capacity is about 15 percent for Dominion Energy Virginia customers, or about $18 on the typical residential customer’s monthly bill. In Maryland, about one-fifth of the monthly bill goes for capacity. Texas chose not to have a market for extra capacity to cut costs and boost profits.
●In the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, almost all gas pipelines are underground, and electric facilities also are “weatherized” to survive cold spells. Texas didn’t pay for that, either, in another cost-saving move that proved shortsighted.
PJM had a close call in 2014, when a “polar vortex” drove down temperatures and forced outages at more than a fifth of the grid’s generating facilities. Fortunately, no blackouts occurred, but the scare led PJM to impose new penalties on utilities, tighten rules and take other steps to force natural gas plants and others to perform better in the cold.
“We invested significant resources in winterizing power stations . . . [and] putting key equipment indoors,” said Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia.
Dominion also put underground some of its most outage-prone “tap lines,” which connect a main power line to an individual neighborhood.
The region “has done what Texas refused to do,” said Roger Berliner, an energy attorney and former Montgomery County Council member. “Texas did not order its power generators or anybody else to take steps to make sure they’re okay.”
Texas’s experience highlighted how a blackout is perhaps the biggest single threat to a community’s water supply. That’s because water utilities need power for pumping stations, wastewater treatment and other necessities.
“We believe that here in the District, it’s unlikely that we would experience what’s happening in Texas [with water problems], unless we have an extended blackout,” said Kishia L. Powell, chief operating officer of D.C. Water.
As a result, she said, D.C. Water is trying to reduce its dependence on the grid by adding emergency generators and increasing reliance on solar energy and biofuels.
The utility also is moving to address other weather threats. It’s encouraging the use of “green infrastructure” such as vegetation-lined channels and other spongelike surfaces to absorb runoff.
“The changes in climate are causing us to have more high intensity, short duration, more impactful storm events,” Powell said. “We see what is happening as more than a risk. It’s becoming a reality.”
Of course, the most effective guarantee against weather-related problems would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change altogether.
Unfortunately, the planet isn’t doing well on that front. U.N. officials reported Friday that even if countries follow through on current pledges, they would achieve only a 1 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030, compared with 2010 levels. By contrast, scientists have said emissions must fall by nearly 50 percent this decade for the world to realistically have a shot at avoiding devastating temperature rise.
So we should prepare for the worst.