Hurricane season officially began on June 1st but Ana didn’t care. She was nine days early to the party and got herself named the first sub-tropical storm of the year. Luckily, Ana didn’t pose a real threat to the eastern U.S. coastline, although the roughly 70,000 inhabitants of Bermuda had some reason to get nervous. The storm formed just north of the island before drifting up and away.
Ana was a warning shot for the disaster season ahead. It looks to be active and potentially dangerous for the Atlantic (which includes the Gulf). NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, in fact, has put 60% odds on another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season.
On the Pacific side, the North American Reliability Council (NERC) put out its forecast for the summer with this advisory: “Across most of Western Interconnection, resource and energy adequacy is a significant concern for the summer…” and “overall resource capacity is lower compared to 2020.” There’s reason to be worried. Temperatures in Los Angeles in recent days hit 107 degrees and 109 degrees in Redding in Northern California beating the old record of 103 degrees set in 2016.
The LA Times recently held a panel discussion with several experts on a range of questions associated with the state’s readiness for summer, the most interesting of which had to do with the electric grid’s ability to withstand the temperatures to come. The most telling comments came in an exchange between Senator Mike McGuire and Susan Kennedy, who served on the California Public Utilities Commission. Responding to a question about multi-day power outages in recent years, Kennedy said, “It’s not a crisis. We’re now the equivalent of many third-world countries where we’re used to having the power go out for hours at a time.” McGuire shot back by saying, “In 2019, there were some areas in the North Coast that lost power 14 out of 30 days. Schools shut down. The economy came to a stop. The most medically vulnerable didn’t have access to their medical equipment. This is not only unheard of, it’s unacceptable. We’re the fifth-flipping-largest economy in the world, yet we can’t keep the damn lights on.”
Kennedy’s apparent nonchalant attitude might be shaped by the fact that she has, “a very expensive generator, so [she’s] now not as fearful when the power is going out for seven or eight hours, or days…”
Three Predictions for Disaster Season 2021
1. Drought and Wildfires Will Throw the Biggest Punch
June through August is the heavy season for tropical storms, severe storms and the flooding that comes with both. The historical math tells us that between 18 and 25 of these events will inflict more than a billion dollars of damage each. Heat, however, is the deadliest type of weather so it is drought and wildfires that deliver the most pain. If the trends hold, between 39 and 41 occurrences are likely going to cause serious financial misery for parts of the U.S. The damage can range from crop and forest loss to buildings and lives. Just as one example from last year, California’s wildfires killed 31 people, destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 buildings and burned 4.1m acres. The direct cost was estimated at more than $20 billion.
2. Electrify Everything Proponents Will Ignore the Obvious
At the other end of the alphabet from Ana, is Wanda. Storms named Julian, Mindy, Odette and Rose will blow into weather reports as well as complex fires –– and where hurricanes and wildfires go –– power outages are sure to follow. That fact connects to another obvious issue: Power outages caused by increasingly severe storms are symptomatic of a bigger problem.
NOAA reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide peaked in May, reaching a monthly average of nearly 419 parts per million, the highest level since measurements began 63 years ago at the Mauna Loa, Hawaii observatory. Isn’t this fact alarming enough to make immediate reductions in carbon? Electrify Everything proponents are sure to agree, then be confounded by their own core bias: Purging the world of fossil fuels at all costs. Their purification solution – more wind and solar supported by battery technologies – has a serious contradictory consequence, the biggest of which is that modern batteries are built from rare minerals that must be mined and processed using a massive amount of fossil fuel.
Time is also an issue. The calls for all-electrification are certainly urgent, but they ignore that fact that the U.S. does not have the capacity to produce the mineral materials necessary to make the promised transition. The IEA recently reported that on average, it takes over 16 years to move the necessary mining projects into production. Even Rewiring America, one of the biggest voices in this movement, admits that electrification at-scale will require, “total public and private spending over 20 years at about 20-25 trillion dollars.”
3. Propane Will Be Ready
When the power is out, the grid is down and gas stations are closed, propane – the methane-free short-chain molecule that is 2.6X more hydrogen than carbon – will be ready. Propane supplies are projected to be healthy throughout the disaster season, and since it doesn’t rely on pipelines for transport, it can be deployed quickly to any affected areas.
Propane powers the forklifts to load and the trucks to carry recovery supplies to people in need. It powers portable generators and the mobile cooking operations that feed disaster victims as well as recovery volunteers. Its low carbon and cleaner emission profile compared to heavy carbon fuels means it delivers the climate-friendly power people need to survive and recover from natural disasters.
One final prediction is in order: As it does across the country for scores of hospitals with back-up power systems, when disaster strikes near her home, it is certain that propane will be ready to work when Susan Kennedy starts her generator.