Two years ago, a storm rolled through Massachusetts, knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of residents. It cost National Grid $52 million to clean up and repair the damage.
The utility has since sought to recover those costs by boosting electric rates for its 1.4 million Massachusetts customers over the next five years. But last week, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a petition with the Department of Public Utilities urging regulators to reject the utility’s request.
CLF’s filing captures a larger issue that affects more than just National Grid customers or Massachusetts residents. It raises the question of how to protect the electric grid from worsening climate risks.
In the petition filed July 28, CLF argued that given the effects of climate change, National Grid should have foreseen that the storm might be intense, prepared more thoroughly, and taken additional steps to protect its equipment. CLF raised similar concerns about utilities’ preparations for extreme weather earlier this year when it asked the DPU to adopt new rules to protect the electric grid from climate risks.
“The problem is that these storms are way more severe and way more frequent than they were five years ago and definitely 10 years ago,” said Johannes Epke, a staff attorney at the CLF.
In a statement, National Grid said that it thoroughly prepares for storms and invests in protecting power lines and equipment, but “the occurrence of storms and weather events that impact the electric system cannot be avoided completely.”
The October 2021 storm caused heavy rains, felled trees, blocked roads, and a widespread power outage that affected nearly 327,000 National Grid customers. While the company restored power to 80 percent of customers within a couple of days, it cost $52 million to replace electric poles and restore wires.
If those costs were passed on to customers, it would increase electricity rates by 1.8 percent, adding more than $3 to the typical monthly bill of about $180.
As climate change leads to more frequent and damaging storms, regulators, lawmakers, and policy makers are wrestling with questions of how to protect the electric grid and who will cover the costs.
Electric customers already pay for storm damages through a storm fund created in the 1990s. Built into electric bills are revenues that utilities set aside for the funds, which they can tap in the event of storms. National Grid sets aside about $16 million each year.
The amount utilities are required to put into their funds is based on an assessment of storm risks by the Department of Public Utilities, which relies on historical climate data. But climate activists, including the Conservation Law Foundation, argue that history is no longer an accurate predictor of future weather events, given how rapidly the climate is changing.
The measures in place are not enough to prepare for more powerful storms, climate advocates say. For example, the state mandates that electric utilities file annual emergency response plans outlining how the companies will respond to disruptions of service. But the state doesn’t require forward-looking planning or consideration of accelerated climate risks.
“They’re also not required to invest any of this money into preventing further damage,” Epke said. “They are just restoring service, restringing the wires, recreating the same distribution network that was knocked out.”
National Grid said it has worked to harden its electric distribution system against the risks of extreme weather. The company said it has invested to protect equipment from flooding, cut back trees near power lines, move cables underground, and enhance construction standards and materials.
Measures to protect the grid from increasingly powerful storms, such as burying power lines underground, won’t be cheap, CLF acknowledges, and customers may end up picking a lot of those costs through higher electricity rates. But if ratepayers are to foot the bill, CLF says, they should do so only after utilities take efficient measures to climate-proof the grid. And that won’t happen unless the DPU creates rules requiring companies to do so.
The DPU declined to comment on CLF’s petition.
Some efforts, however, are underway to address the impact of climate change on the electric grid. The state Clean Energy Act of 2022 created a Grid Modernization Advisory Council, requiring electric utilities to submit plans every five years on how they will improve grid reliability and prepare for climate risks. The first plans are due in September.
“We want the companies to take a hard look at their infrastructure,” Epke said, “and make sure that they are doing things such that the system is ready for the coming and current impacts of climate change, and do so in a fiscally responsible way.”