This grid moves energy, but not always reliably

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More than three million people in Puerto Rico lost electricity in September 2017. Back-to-back hurricanes had just slammed into the island. Floods from Maria, the more powerful of them, knocked out many power plants. Winds and mudslides toppled towers and the power lines they carried. Explains climate scientist Juan Declet-Barreto: “Losing power is not merely inconvenient. In a climate-ravaged, tropical area like Puerto Rico, it’s life-threatening.”

With no electricity, hospitals had to delay surgeries. They couldn’t run many scans or tests, either. Without timely care, some patients died. Puerto Rico’s water-treatment plants lost power during Maria. As a result, people across the island lost access to clean water. And few people could cook or refrigerate food. Anyone lucky to have a portable stove or generator had to stand in long lines for fuel. Meanwhile, schools and businesses closed or cut their hours.

Declet-Barreto works for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. But he grew up in Puerto Rico. His parents and sister’s family still live there. Phones went out shortly after Hurricane Maria made landfall. For days, Declet-Barreto didn’t know his family’s fate. Fortunately, they fared pretty well. And their electricity came back within a few weeks.

Many others were not as lucky. Four months after Maria, about one-third of the island still lacked electricity. Even after six months, roughly one in 10 people still couldn’t switch on the lights. It was nearly a year after Maria hit before everyone again had power.

Hurricanes are severe events, but Maria was especially bad. Its winds and flooding “couldn’t have been a more literal ‘perfect storm’ of conditions,” Declet-Barreto says. Its winds and fallen trees destroyed much of the island’s system for carrying electricity from power plants. Even before Maria, the company that delivers electricity had not been replacing aging equipment.

Puerto Rico is far from the only place that has struggled to keep its lights on, phones charged and computers powered up.

The electric grid is a term for the system that brings electricity from where it’s made to homes and businesses. Nearly everyone depends on that system. Yet as important as it is, this grid faces a host of threats. Some are simple and old. Others are complex and very new.

Fortunately, engineers are working on them. Their research aims to keep the grid going, despite natural — and some decidedly unnatural — disasters. Other projects are looking at how to get the lights back on more quickly after power outages. Still more work looks for ways to rely less on fossil fuels (mainly coal, oil and natural gas) and instead generate more electricity using cleaner wind and solar energy. The cleaner sources might not only help slow global warming, but also make the grid more resilient to shutdowns.