Philly Bracing for Hurricane-Fueled Power Outages

New computer model suggests climate change will cause more blackouts in years to come.

In Mayor Nutter’s final budget address yesterday, he took the opportunity to thank city agencies for working through some of the worst inclement weather in Philadelphia history over the past seven years (emphasis my own):

We’ve seen it all – hottest summers, the two heaviest snow fall seasons and the one of the coldest Februarys ever on record, two hurricanes and an earthquake – yes, climate change is real.

During his two terms, Nutter has been a leader on climate change in both national and local contexts, advancing our sustainability through Greenworks and participating on President Obama’s national task force on climate preparedness. As impressive as some of the achievements have been—like increasing the recycling rate by 155 percent—the city’s environmental challenges are likely to grow only more difficult for the next mayor.

One sign of the creeping threat of climate change comes in a recent analysis from Johns Hopkins University that suggests Philly will be much more susceptible to blackouts in the coming years. We rank second among 27 major coastal cities from Texas to Maine for future risk of increased power outages (New York is first). Why? Because climate change is likely to send more hurricanes Philadelphia’s way, and the local power grid isn’t equipped for that kind of punishment. The lead researcher had this to say: “If I’m mayor of Miami, we know about hurricanes, we know about outages and our system has been adopted for it. If I’m mayor of Philadelphia, I might say, ‘Whoa, we need to be doing more about this.’”

Ultimately it is PECO’s responsibility to protecting the electric grid, but City Hall actually has been making nuanced contingency plans for Philadelphia power outages, according to Governing. The city has been installing back-up generators in essential buildings and gauging the grid’s most vulnerable spot. All of these efforts are coming on the heels of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which caused more PECO outages than any storm in its history. Over 600,000 customers lost power in the wake of the superstorm, many of them in the dark for days.

What’s really needed is extensive new investment in the power grid itself, both in Philadelphia and across the nation. Short of that, all City Hall can do is be a little better prepared for the inevitable Philadelphia power outages.