Weathering the storm
Recently, hundreds of thousands of customers, in several states, were left without power following severe, summer storms. The storms themselves were only part of the story however. In some cases, the infrastructure that delivers electricity to homes and business was at the center of these outages.
Dr. Abdollah Shafieezadeh and his research team in Ohio State's Risk Assessment and Management of Structural and Infrastructure Systems (RAMSIS) Lab study the effects of climate change and increasing consumer demand on the nation's critical infrastructure (CI) and are actively creating numeric and probabilistic models to assess CI's resilience and reliability.
In July of 2021, Shafieezadeh addressed the nation's efforts to account for increased demand for energy resources using existing infrastructure that, in some cases, was designed 50 to 60 years ago. During testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, he advocated for a revised approach to address current and future infrastructure and energy needs that included government-supported research, public and private sector investment, as well as raised awareness among consumers as to how they use these critical resources.
"The risks we are addressing are dynamic. So we need to adopt strategies that are adaptive in time," he stated. "Some of the actions we need to take now. But we will need to make some decisions on the go."
Dr. Shafieezadeh went on to say that no "one size fits all" approach exists for addressing these needs. As extreme weather events vary from region to region, so must the approaches to upgrading the critical energy infrastructure that serves citizens in those areas.
For instance, a severe flood in a coastal region may require mitigating a rise in sea level that causes these damaging floods. And while a neighboring inland community may not require protections from storm surge, that community, as a result of the same storm, may experience the same or similar adverse effects on housing, transportation and other infrastructure essentials as the population living in the coastal area.
Ohioans experienced this interconnectedness following recent storms as increased demand, coupled with extreme, weather-related events, caused normal outages but also made it necessary for some service providers to intentionally disrupt power in other communities in order to protect the integrity of the larger electric grid. Based on his group's research findings, Shafieezadeh sees the potential for more occurrences like these in the future.
"There is overwhelming consensus among the research and academic community that not just single events but a combination of these events likely becoming more extreme," he said. "Many parts of the country will see an increase in these stressors."
The associate professor emphasized to the Senate Committee the need for identifying which parts of the infrastructure system were most vulnerable and then creating targeted upgrades for those sectors. And while the cost for these upgrades would be substantial, he advocated that making these systems more resilient would, in fact, have a high benefit to cost ratio.
With researchers, developers, policy makers and the public all working together, Shafieezadeh believes the nation's critical infrastructure can be be effectively upgraded.
"With funding and a new approach to making upgrades, resiliency can be improved," he suggested.
When asked by a committee member what he believed the cost of doing nothing was, Dr. Shafieezadeh replied that inaction will only lead to more major infrastructure problems and a higher cost to properly address them.
"The capacity of these systems to meet the needs of the future, like climate change and weather extemes, is going to reduce further and further, and the systems are going to be more vulnerable to future hazards," he told members of the Senate.
Watch Dr. Shafieezadeh's testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs - 21st Century Communities: Climate Change, Resilience, and Reinsurance
Watch Dr. Shafieezadeh participate in a June 15, 2022 interview with WBNS-10TV News (Columbus, OH.) The story discussed how electricity is generated and transmitted to homes and businesses as well as how extreme weather events can disrupt these services.