The wrath of Ida prompts calls for resilient energy infrastructure

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Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this week. The storm’s 150 miles per hour winds knocked out the power for around 1 million people and took more than 2000 miles of critical high-voltage transmission offline. An army of brave linemen is pouring into the region, but it could be many weeks before power is fully restored. 

Getting the lights back on will be a little more complicated than the restoration efforts after previous storms. Why? Ida leveled all eight transmission towers that feed power into New Orleans, including the destruction of a 400-foot tall transmission tower that had previously withstood the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

“It’s like a 400-foot-tall tower,” says Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin. “It is a massive piece of infrastructure – they are going to have to rebuild the tower and restore the lines that go through it. It will depend on whether they have a spare tower lying round or the metal to build one. … A tower of that size is not normally kept in reserve.”

What’s the real problem? Aging infrastructure, of course. Much of our existing power grid infrastructure was built over half a century ago and is long overdue for an upgrade. We’ve been on record calling for a streamlining of government “red tape” hindering transmission infrastructure projects, but our calls seem to fall on deaf ears. While President Biden’s infrastructure package includes funds for grid hardening, some lawmakers fear that the plan will pick winners and losers in the energy industry, making it unclear if the bill will pass. 

Over the years, we’ve also championed storm hardening to make our power grid more resilient. The aftermath of Hurricane Ida will likely spur investment in undergrounding transmission lines increasing the grid’s resiliency during a catastrophic weather event like Ida. This approach is already taking place in other states prone to hurricanes, like Florida. 

“We have a significantly aging set of infrastructure,” says Larry Gasteiger, executive director of WIRES, an industry trade association that advocates for the expansion of high voltage transmission infrastructure. “It is reaching a vintage where you have to assess whether you can continue to do repairs or actively replace it with newer and hopefully more resilient infrastructure.”

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Ida should serve as a wake-up call to lawmakers and utility commissioners of all stripes. Our 20th-century grid is simply too overburdened to handle the energy demands and catastrophic weather events of the 21st century. What Ida showed us is that we don’t just need a reliable grid. We need a resilient grid. Let’s hope policymakers heed these calls.

Donations to the Salvation Army to aid Hurricane Ida relief efforts can be made here.