As we find ourselves amidst the peak of hurricane season, let’s review the intricate relationship between hurricanes and the energy markets. This article examines the forces of nature, from the inception of hurricanes to their profound impact on the energy landscape.
Hurricanes: Nature’s Fury and Formation
Hurricanes are a weather phenomenon created primarily by warm ocean waters that typically occur from June 1 to November 30. They materialize when warm air over water rises higher into the atmosphere and are low-pressure systems that spin counterclockwise.
The warmer the water, the easier hurricanes can form and strengthen. Hurricanes get weaker on land, specifically when running into mountain ranges. Therefore, Puerto Rico and Cuba can take the life out of a hurricane much more so than Florida.
Hurricanes are measured in intensity by the Saffir-Simpson scale in a rating from 1 to 5, 5 being the most intense and dangerous (see Saffir-Simpson scale below).
The Roles of Ocean Temperature
Ever wonder why more hurricanes form in the Caribbean and Gulf? It all comes down to the warmer ocean temperatures in these regions, which are more conducive to hurricane formation. This phenomenon explains the rarity of hurricanes like Hurricane Hillary reaching California as potent tropical storms.
Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015 with superimposed linear trend (Base period 1951–1980), red positive, blue negative. ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/time-series/global/globe/ocean/ytd/12/1880-2016
As these temperatures rise, they provide greater opportunities for major hurricanes (category 3 or higher) to form. Nevertheless, hurricane development isn’t solely determined by warm water; factors such as wind direction and high-pressure systems also play vital roles, as explained by Larry Cosgrove, Chief Meteorologist of WEATHERAmerica.
“While rising water temperatures are ultimately going to increase tropical cyclone strength, power, and precipitation output, the state of the upper atmosphere also plays a critical role. For instance, if winds are opposable to maintaining a cyclonic convective circulation (southwest as in contrast to east based flow at surface) weak disturbances will be seen (much like this year and to some extent last season). This is why a well-developed El Nino can thwart hurricane formation and also act to prevent thunderstorm cluster rotation.”
Hurricanes: Impact on the Energy Market
The most major hurricanes in a season were the 2005 season (see figure below). While the ocean is warmer now, the other factors as described above haven’t lined up yet to have that type of year since. But with ocean temperatures rising, odds are we will have that type of year again.
Hurricanes, with their ferocious winds and torrential rains, wreak havoc on infrastructure, including energy systems. The consequences for the energy market can be profound.
In essence, major hurricanes have the potential to devastate power plants and transmission lines, plunging millions into darkness. The recovery process can be protracted, taking days, weeks, or even years, especially in regions with fragile infrastructure, such as Puerto Rico.
While some propose underground powerlines as a solution to prevent outages, they come with significantly higher costs, up to 10 times more expensive than above-ground power lines. Moreover, they may prove even more vulnerable to storm surges and saltwater inundation, common in major hurricanes. In Florida, the high water tables in some areas make underground lines impractical.
Mitigating Outages with Distributed Energy Resources
To reduce the impact of outages, one key strategy involves bolstering backup resources while repairing transmission lines and infrastructure. Distributed energy resources (DER), including behind-the-meter solar, backup generation, and fuel cells, can help maintain a continuous power supply, albeit in smaller increments.
Looking ahead, portable Small Modular Nuclear reactors (SMR) emerge as a promising solution to keep the grid operational and seamlessly integrate with existing infrastructure during repairs.
A Pledge for Climate Action
While eliminating hurricanes and extreme weather events remains beyond our reach, curbing carbon emissions can help limit the rise in ocean temperatures. The current trajectory suggests a future plagued by stronger hurricanes, leading to extended and costlier power outages. As hurricanes like Hurricane Lee impact the US, the need for climate action is increasingly imperative.
Stay tuned for more insights into the intricate dynamics between nature’s forces and our energy markets.