The utility industry has had plenty of practice for this week's superstorm. At the end of June, a fast-moving "derecho" storm knocked out power for 4.3 million customers in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, and in the summer of 2011, Hurricane Irene blacked out 6 million homes and businesses in the East. In an ominous sign of things to come, Sandy is already considered much worse — and much bigger — than Irene.
After Irene, between 30,000 and 50,000 utility line workers were involved in the cleanup and power-restoration effort, according to EEI President Tom Kuhn. Utilities must strike a delicate balance between ensuring they have the resources to respond adequately to major storms like Sandy and also keeping electricity rates low.
"It is not realistic for customers to expect perfect service during significant weather events when they also want their rates kept low," said Christine Tezak, managing director at the Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners.
Sandy is raising concerns about more than a dozen nuclear power plants that are in its projected path. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is taking precautions by sending additional inspectors to sites likely to be impacted by the hurricane in order to supplement the full-time personnel already there.
Plants in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut are receiving "enhanced oversight during the storm," according to the agency.
Reactors are required to shut down in advance of any projected hurricane-force winds. Since plants rely on power from the grid for normal operations, if offsite power is lost during the storm, the plants' emergency diesel generators are expected to kick in. The NRC insists that "all plants have flood protection above the predicted storm surge and key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding."
After the storm, the plants cannot restart until the Federal Emergency Management Agency gives them an all-clear, according to emergency procedures and regulations.
"All U.S. plants have been reviewing their emergency procedures and resources in line with one of our orders from March, which requires the plants to obtain enough emergency portable equipment to cover every reactor at a given site," NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told National Journal on Monday. "At this point, the plants' existing permanent backup equipment is ready to respond to any storm-related issues."
Much of the focus of energy infrastructure has been on traditional electricity sources, but wind turbines, some of which are as tall as the Statue of Liberty (more than 300 feet), are also at risk of hurricane-force winds.
"Wind turbines are designed specifically to harness the wind, but they are also designed to withstand it," said Ellen Carey, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. "Modern wind turbines utilize several techniques to reduce the likelihood of harm."