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Climate change poses a threat to Iowa's electric grid. Scientists are calling for infrastructure investments now

A power pole leans precariously over a derecho-damaged apartment building on Wiley Boulevard SW in Cedar Rapids.
Kate Payne / IPR
A power pole leans precariously over a derecho-damaged apartment building on Wiley Boulevard SW in Cedar Rapids.

Iowa needs targeted investments to strengthen and expand its electrical grid, in order to prepare for an increase in extreme weather events fueled by climate change. That’s the recommendation from the latest Iowa Climate Statement, which was released Wednesday by a coalition of some 223 scientists and researchers across 34 Iowa colleges and universities.

The researchers say regulators and state leaders don’t have to look any further than the devastating impacts of last year’s derecho to see clear vulnerabilities in Iowa’s electrical infrastructure.

The derecho, which packed wind speeds comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane, knocked out power for more than 500,000 households, leaving some in the dark for two weeks.

The massive power outages resulted in a near-total communications blackout in some areas, hamstringing local governments and leaving the most vulnerable without air conditioning and refrigeration, and jeopardizing their access to fresh food and lifesaving medical supplies like insulin and oxygen.

“Socioeconomically disadvantaged people are the most affected by the increased heat and humidity, intense precipitation events, power outages and flooding that we are currently experiencing. And which will only become worse without climate action,” said Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. “We should protect vulnerable people and safeguard the future of our entire community.”

The derecho made clear the need to secure power supplies for critical resources such as grocery stores, water infrastructure and community centers. In the aftermath of the storm, the city of Belle Plaine scrambled to secure a generator to keep its water well running. Officials in Cedar Rapids opened a dedicated shelter for residents to charge their medical equipment.

“Each of the recently increasing number of unprecedented climate extremes, such as the derecho in Iowa, the extreme freeze in Texas and the wildfires in the western US have revealed new and disturbing challenges for electric grid reliability,” said Gene Takle, emeritus professor of Agronomy at Iowa State University.

“Incremental improvements from past experience have not prepared us for our 21st Century vulnerability to the scope of destruction and societal consequences of climate change on the electric generation and distribution system,” he added.

Much of Iowa’s electric infrastructure was not designed for the extreme conditions the state is likely to see, according to Jim McCalley, professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University. A lack of preparation in Texas proved deadly when historically cold temperatures immobilized some of the state’s oil wells and halted power generation. He says Iowa should act now to prevent a similar catastrophe.

“We need to reduce impact and increase speed of restoration and recovery during extreme events,” said Jim McCalley, professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University. “This requires diversification in the ways that we supply power. It means, for example, deploying microgrids for loads providing critical services such as hospitals and grocery stores.”

The authors of the climate statement focus on a few key recommendations: hardening key infrastructure by increasing the structural strength of transmission and distribution lines and undergrounding lines where flooding is not a risk, and diversifying the power supply by adding microgrids, expanding generation technology, and increasing transmission lines.

Fortifying the grid will also allow for more wind and solar development, which McCalley says is a critical step in order to rapidly achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“The transmission capacity that we currently have is insufficient to build out the resources that we need to hit zero carbon. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact,” McCalley said. “Ultimately if we want to get to the point of minimizing the effects of climate change and decarbonizing our infrastructure, this is a step that I think we really don’t have a choice on.”

The authors of the climate statement are calling on members of the public and state leaders to push the Iowa Utilities Board, utility companies and municipalities to make the investments.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter