From Climate Change to Climate Emergency: Extreme Weather Reveals Vulnerabilities in Energy Infrastructure and Local Utility Systems

Erika Harvey

Erika Harvey

Project Manager, Climate Vulnerability Assessment

Over the last few years, climate scientists have noticed that the extreme events originally projected for future decades are happening now. These recent extreme events have changed language in the field from climate change to climate emergency, and the difference isn’t just semantics—it is the rate and volume at which they occur. Historically, climate change is much more gradual in terms of the natural fluctuation in change. Whereas recently, there has been a take-off in the magnitude and frequency of these disaster events. 

Extreme weather events driven by climate change have already begun to reveal energy infrastructure vulnerabilities and public health risks in the Sierra and beyond. Just in 2021, in our region and all over the world, people were faced with disastrous storms, flooding, and fires. 

These climate crises lead to devastating consequences. Not only must communities bear the loss of environmental ecosystems and human life, but they also must face the financial burden of rebuilding and repairing ecosystems.

A familiar site for those who had to dig themselves out of their own driveways in Dec. 2021

 

In late December, the Sierra experienced another major power outage due to storms. Outages stretched from the western foothills to South Lake Tahoe, and as far north as pockets in Plumas County (to our knowledge). Some residents and businesses were out of power for up to a week. Many households don’t have alternate heat sources, and homes reached 40-degree temperatures (or colder depending on building insulation) in less than 24 hours. While the communities were committed to getting as much information out as quickly as possible, cell service and lack of broadband is limited in rural regions, making communication difficult. The Internet was down in many areas because the service providers didn’t have backup generators, and people were forced to rely on insufficient cellular data to stay informed. Residents who didn’t have cell service at their homes were forced to brave the unsafe road conditions and drive into town to get a signal just to get information. When unexpected events occur infrequently like this (especially in rural areas), it’s always a scramble to get details out to the community about being prepared and mitigating seemingly simple issues, such as: turning off water to avoid freezing pipes and sharing information about warming centers, charging stations, road conditions, and generator safety.  

The winter outages may have been a result of the extreme storm (large amounts of heavy wet snow in a short amount of time), but the root of these issues stem from the long-term drought impacting forest health. The unhealthy/dead trees can’t stand the weight of the snow, therefore causing many downed trees hitting multiple power lines and transformers throughout the region. The combination of climate related risks and our current infrastructure is illustrating vulnerabilities that will only worsen with future climate events to come. Looking forward, adaptation strategies for repercussions of climate disasters are crucial now more than ever if we are to become a climate resilient region.  

A rare snow day at 2,500 feet in Placerville, Dec. 27, 2021

Recently, January weather in the Sierra has experienced a swing in the pendulum. Locals refer to it as “Juneuary”—another weather extreme of sunny weeks with fairly warm afternoons. The intensity of the sun has already melted or evaporated over half of the many feet of snow that fell in December. One of the primary issues of intense weather events that is commonly misunderstood are these pendulum swings. We may get many feet of snow at one time, but with sunny warm weeks following those storms, sometimes we are left with less snowpack than years with less overall totals. The other concern is rain on snow events, where large amounts of snow fall and then temperatures become warmer, and the following storms turn to rain. These rain on snow events can cause serious flooding in certain areas of the Sierra. 

Challenges that derive from extreme weather events are not unique to the Sierra. Throughout 2021, we witnessed severe weather storms and power outages in Texas, power outages in England, tornadoes in Kansas, and ice storms in Kentucky. These are just a few examples that took place in the last year of how extreme weather events (other than fire) have impacted communities’ infrastructure (power grid, roads, bridges, homes, businesses, etc.) costing millions to billions of dollars. 

The climate emergency is already here, it is not something to be speculated anymore, and people are paying for the aftermath. The 2017’s Central Sierra outage costs were estimated at a few million, and the 2021 outage will be similar. Region wide outages require a number of extra contractors, trucks, and equipment to assist with capacity. All these extra costs are motivated by restoring power as quickly as possible to return living essentials (heat, water, etc). The result of these costs eventually impact the communities. As a direct result of climate change and disaster events (ie. wildfire), power companies have been increasing their rates. Some local power companies’ have increased their rates 40% or more to help mitigate the damage costs. As these disasters become more frequent and more severe, the impacts on our livelihoods are only going to become more taxing unless we as a community make serious changes to become a more resilient region.

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