Q: What would happen to electricity if Hurricane Sandy hit the Netherlands? A: Nothing.

America can learn from the Netherlands' modern, disaster-resistant grid

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

An electrician with Hydro Quebec works on power lines in Breezy Point, a neighborhood in the New York borough of Queens, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. One of the biggest sources of tension between residents and the authorities in the worst-hit areas of New York City: damaged electrical systems in homes and not enough electricians to fix them. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

In Wessel Bakker’s hometown of Gouda, the Netherlands (like the cheese), there are wooden utility poles like the ones downed by Hurricane Sandy. But in Gouda, the structures are more nostalgia than infrastructure.

“In my neighborhood — it’s a small, nice town — there are the last remaining wooden poles,” said Bakker, Regional Director of Electricity Transmission and Distribution for DNV KEMA, an energy consulting, testing and certification company. “[The poles] have been marked as a landscape monument.”

These are not simply the last remaining utility poles in Gouda. They are just about “the only poles left in the country,” said Bakker. “Maybe there are two or three more locations.”

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the coast, thousands of people still don’t have power. Many are living in shelters because their homes lack heat, hot water and electricity, while thousands more have completely lost their homes. The storm took over 100 lives.

But as utility workers repair an aging American grid — and as climate change promises to bring stronger storms more frequently — Latitude News wonders what the U.S. can learn from the Netherlands’ modern, disaster-resistant power grid.

I asked Wessel Bakker what would happen to power supplies if a storm like Sandy hit the Dutch coast, a storm that comes ashore with 30-foot waves and 80-mile-per-hour winds.

He paused for a long moment, then said: “In the worst case scenario, I think nothing will happen.”

Fire and rain . . . and flooding

The electrical grid in the Netherlands has some similarities to its American counterpart. Both are composed of a transmission grid —big, high-voltage lines, like the ones you might see while driving along a major highway — and a distribution grid — small, low-voltage lines which comprise the patchwork of cables running through cities and neighborhoods.

But here’s one major difference: the Netherlands’ distribution grid is largely underground. That’s one less thing cluttering up the country’s picturesque landscape, and one less hazard if the wind hits 80 miles per hour.

When Hurricane Sandy barreled through New Jersey and New York, strong winds ravaged local distribution grids — tree limbs became projectiles, power lines snapped and utility poles were uprooted.

It is physically impossible for this kind of damage to happen to the Netherlands’ distribution grid. The wind may blow, but the power lines are safe underground.

President Barack Obama shakes hands during a visit to a hurricane battered Staten Island neighborhood in New York. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

But flooding was equally damaging to the electrical infrastructure during the superstorm. Bakker points to lower Manhattan, where many substations, transformers and switchboards — the machinery that regulates the electricity in cables — are built at ground level.

“What happened in Manhattan is a peculiar situation,” Bakker said. “The flooding was 14 feet above normal level. That’s extremely high. That is the root cause behind the failure.”

Even if severe flooding hit the Netherlands, damage to underground cables would be minimal. However, it is possible that a flood could damage ground-level substations and other infrastructure in the Netherlands. But that is assuming the Netherlands actually experienced a major flood, a disaster for which the country has been preparing for over half a century.

Much of the Netherlands would be underwater if not for the nation’s 10,000-plus miles of dikes, dams and other structures. Major flooding was an accepted part of life in the Netherlands until 1953, when a deluge of cold seawater destroyed infrastructure and killed 1,800 people. After that tragic event, the Netherlands got serious about natural disasters, embarking on a 50-year, $14.7-billion flood-control project.

The Netherlands flood-resistant infrastructure is built to withstand a 10,000-year flood, a flood so large and powerful it could only happen once in 10,000 years. By way of contrast, the levees built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are designed to withstand a 100-year storm.

Circles, not stars

In addition to a grid infrastructure designed to withstand heavy winds and flooding, the layout of the Dutch grid also makes it far more reliable than the American grid.

Much of the U.S. grid is designed in star patterns, meaning power lines fan out in straight lines toward homes and communities. That means if a power line connecting a community to the bulk grid goes down, the power won’t come back on until that line is repaired.

The extensive damage to an amusement park roller coaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is seen in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. (Reuters/Tom Mihalek)

But in the Netherlands, the grid is laid out in a circular formation. If you lose power from one direction, you can quickly receive it from the other direction. And, increasingly, the Dutch grid is interconnected with neighboring Germany, Norway, Belgium and the UK. Inter-connectivity improves reliability.

All of these factors — a massive infrastructure designed to resist floods, an extensive network of underground power lines, and a highly interconnected grid — make the Dutch grid far more reliable than the American grid.

“In Holland,” said Bakker, “we have about average 24 minutes outage annually.”

Bakker points to a 2008 study of the American grid which came to very different conclusions.

“Some of the most reliable utilities are in the heartland states of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas,” Bakker said. “In those states, the power is out an average of 92 minutes per year. On the other end of the spectrum, utilities in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey averaged 214 minutes of total interruptions each year. These figures don’t include power outages blamed on tornadoes or other disasters.”

I asked Bakker when was the last time the Netherlands experienced a big power outage. Again, he paused for a long moment: “It depends what you call ‘big.’ There was a large one in the western region about 15 years ago.”

Over one million people lost power — for about an hour.

How much more of this can you tolerate?

In some ways, comparing the American and Dutch grids isn’t quite fair. The Netherlands is about the size of a densely populated Maryland, whereas the U.S. is enormous with a widely distributed power grid. The Netherlands’ unique topography has effectively required it to build major flood infrastructure, whereas building thousands of miles of dikes might be an expensive overreaction to Hurricane Sandy. Plus the American grid is overseen and maintained by a patchwork of federal, regional and local bodies. Most power generation companies in the Netherlands are privately owned, just like American utility operators. Having said that, it’s also the case that the country is much smaller than the U.S., making management, oversight and distribution of power far more streamlined.

But here are some sobering statistics. A recent report for Congress (entitled “Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency”) estimated that each year storms cost the U.S. $20 to $55 billion in damage and lost economic productivity. However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimated that Hurricane Sandy, one single storm, caused $50 billion in damage, most of it in New York State. That means in 2012, we hit our annual quota in one day. The report, written two months before Sandy hit the coast, also noted: “the trend of outages from weather-related events is increasing.”

Wessel Bakker doesn’t envy the American situation.

A wind turbine, a transition piece (L) and a transformer station are seen in a wind park 14 miles off the coast of Ijmuiden, the Netherlands. Along with underground power lines and a smart grid, the Netherlands is investing heavily in renewable energy. (Reuters/ Michael Kooren)

“You have large challenges ahead of you,” said Bakker. He says the U.S. must “identify the optimum road map to improve the reliability for [the American] grid.”

But can the U.S. really do what the Netherlands has done — pump billions, if not trillions, into smart-grid technologies and disaster-resistant infrastructure?

We might not have a choice, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In a 2011 report called “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Electricity Infrastructure,” ASCE called the American grid a “patchwork system” that could break down without a $673-billion investment by 2020. At current rates of investment, the ASCE report says the economy will grow more slowly and be more susceptible to fits and starts induced by nasty weather.

The report to Congress makes a few seemingly “Dutch” suggestions: trimming trees, laying distribution and some transmission lines underground, investing in a modern Smart Grid and focusing utility maintenance practices on power system reliability. Essentially, doing what the Netherlands has done, but on a much larger scale.

But Bakker points to a cultural shift that may be necessary as well. He says the Dutch public and government have simply developed a lower tolerance for power outages.

After three weeks without power, some Americans are certainly feeling less tolerant too.