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Extreme weather requires new model for grid planning

Scientists studying extreme storms’ damage to the power grid in Puerto Rico found that the constant repair of traditional grids is not cost-efficient.  Angel Valentin/Getty Images

Severe weather events, such as hurricanes and ice storms, can cause significant damage to power grids, which typically involve a centralized power-generating station linked to large numbers of neighborhoods. Although these systems offer efficiencies of scale, some scientists are questioning whether long-term grid planning should take into account the likelihood of more extreme weather.

An interdisciplinary team including UVA engineering systems and environment Ph.D. candidate Jeff Bennett (Engr ’20) studied damage to the power grid in Puerto Rico, which has experienced 13 named hurricanes over 25 years. The team wanted to determine whether considering extreme weather risks would change the planning model’s decisions on the most cost-efficient strategy. For Puerto Rico, the model found, moving away from a traditional grid to one using more renewable wind and solar energy sources distributed across the landscape proved more economical.

While the researchers focused on Puerto Rico, Bennett says, their work demonstrates the value of considering extreme weather events for grid planning. Because of climate change, “The past is no longer a good analog for the future, and it is very difficult to know what will happen,” says Bennett. “So looking at these different scenarios will give you better insight.”