Climate Change Is Threatening the Power Grid

So says the White House, in a new report that recommends strengthening the grid.

This May 20, 2012 photo shows one of the major transmission lines that runs to the west of Albuquerque, N.M. Even as renewable power projects get a boost from the federal government, a lack of transmission prevents sunny states such as New Mexico from converting solar potential into real watts that can charge smartphones and run air conditioners thousands of miles away.  (AP)

Just days away from the 10-year anniversary of the worst power outage in U.S. history, the White House and the Energy Department released a report on Monday evaluating the resiliency of the nation's electric grid and recommending steps to prevent future blackouts.

The report called storms and severe weather "the leading cause of power outages in the United States," and warned against the steep cost of weather-related damage to the electric grid. It put the price tag for electrical failures caused by inclement weather at between $18 billion and $33 billion annually, and noted that costs have increased in recent years, jumping from a range of $14 billion to $26 billion in 2003 to $27 billion to $52 billion in 2012. Storms exceeding a billion dollars in damages (electrical and otherwise) have also become more frequent in the past decade, as the chart below shows.

Senior administration officials told reporters during a conference call Monday morning that investing in improvements to the grid is the best way to make sure this figure does not continue to rise.

Officials said the electrical distribution system, largely made up of power lines, is the most vulnerable part of the grid. One investment to strengthen the system, they suggested, would be to add automated sensors to pinpoint the exact location of a power failure. "One of the things we have been working with is to help deploy automated switches, which utilities have been able to [use] to minimize the impact of outages ... so what they've been able to do is actually isolate a fault or where the damage is on the system faster and be able to keep other customers up that normally would have gone down in an outage," one offical said.

Administration officals also urged continued investment in monitoring systems to identify areas of the grid most likely to be damaged in the event of a storm.

Additionally, the report pointed to a link between climate change and the need for grid modernization. "It's clear that climate change is impacting the grid," another official said. The same offical noted that climate change has increased the "frequency and intensity" of storms throughout the United States, leaving the nation's aging network of power generators, electric plants, and transmission lines more susceptible to damage.

The release of the report dovetails neatly with the president's Climate Action Plan, which calls for expansion and modernization of the U.S. electrical grid.

It also follows the Energy Department's publication of a report last month showing how the U.S. energy sector has become increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and extreme weather variability due to climate change.

Despite its recommendations, the report does not constitute a federal mandate. Officials noted that it is up to state and local governments as well as privately owned power and utility companies to help implement the guidelines.