When you think of a hurricane and its potential consequences, you probably
think of locations on the ocean and of relief agencies that move into
affected areas to help the residents deal with the losses of life and
The Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory
(NETL) is nowhere near an ocean, but at the first breath of a hurricane,
it has a team of researchers who spring into action to provide vital information
about the energy infrastructure – natural gas supply, oil supply,
electrical generation and transmission, coal transportation, demographic
and general transportation issues along with economic impact and the associated
interdependencies the interruptions would cause.
Most people take for granted that there will be adequate supplies of energy
to meet their needs. The extensive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina
shows just how valuable – and vulnerable to natural disasters –
the energy supply system is. Some estimates after the hurricane finally
ended its destructive journey ashore were that it would be weeks before
power could be completely restored to areas hardest hit by Katrina. Then,
right on Katrina’s heels, Hurricane Rita began threatening the Gulf
Coast as a Category 5 hurricane and people began worrying that Rita would
cause as much damage.
Starting with the hurricanes last year, NETL’s Energy Infrastructure
and Security Research Group has been doing emergency coordination and
analysis and providing the information to DOE headquarters in Washington,
D.C. NETL coordinates a multi-lab DOE response team that includes Los
Alamos National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National
Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National
Laboratories. The team is called the Visualization and Modeling Working
The Energy Infrastructure and Security Research Group in the National
Energy Technology Laboratory’s Office of Science and Engineering
Research develops capabilities to analyze U.S. energy infrastructure and
provide support to the Department of Energy’s Headquarters in energy
emergency exercises. From left to right, group members Frank Hutchinson,
computer scientist; Lee Dougherty (standing), engineer; Keith Dodrill,
engineer; and Ray Lopez, geologist, study energy infrastructure data in
a geospatial information systems format.
While a full VMWG team activation was not needed for every hurricane
last year, NETL played a role for the hurricanes that came to land by
doing pre-storm and post-storm analysis. NETL has done analysis so far
this year for every significant hurricane, including Katrina and Rita.
NETL researchers generate maps that show various components of the energy
infrastructure – transmission lines and pipelines, for instance
– and couple the locations with data that give current information
about the status of the components.
NETL has been involved in coordinating and providing information back
to DOE on an ongoing basis ever since Katrina touched land, and continued
providing information while Rita brought its own destructiveness ashore.
The analyses cover outage and restoration progress. NETL provides the
information to DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.
“We started watching Katrina from the moment it was named,”
says Keith Dodrill, an engineer and group leader in NETL’s Energy
Infrastructure and Security Research Group, as he ran assessments about
Rita’s potential impact. “We did a preliminary analysis when
it came across Florida. Amazingly, even as Katrina’s destruction
is still being addressed, we’re now watching another hurricane that
has been classified as a category 5.”
At the time of that preliminary analysis, Katrina was projected to be
a minimal storm that would skirt the coast of Florida and cause little
That changed dramatically on the Saturday when Katrina became a major
NETL’s initial preliminary analysis role changed, too. The multi-lab
team was called into action on Saturday to do a full analysis, looking
at the natural gas and oil pipeline production and refinery system, the
analysis of impacts of electrical outage and restoration of electricity,
and an economic impact analysis based on the electrical analysis.
In cases of an emergency, NETL has to provide visualizations back to DOE
headquarters within an hour. The procedure calls for NETL to provide the
total analysis, including input from the other national labs, within eight
NETL is able to overlay a hurricane storm track over the maps showing
locations of energy infrastructure components, using information from
the National Hurricane Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration. Los Alamos provides damage contours based on storm tracks
and wind speed projections, and NETL and the other labs incorporate those
contours into their own analyses.
Keith Dodrill, an engineer and group leader in the Energy Infrastructure
and Security Research Group in the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s
Office of Science and Engineering Research, tracks the path of a hurricane
to determine the potential impact on energy infrastructure. Dodrill’s
group provides support to Department of Energy Headquarters in energy
DOE distributes the NETL report to its senior managers and then it goes
to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use in its response to the
NETL has the role because it combines Geographical Information System
information on locations of power plants, refineries, and other infrastructure
features with experienced engineering knowledge of energy infrastructures
to analyze potential impacts. This allows the NETL group to respond quickly.
Also, NETL is the only national laboratory operated by DOE employees.
Dodrill points out that the capability to do energy infrastructure analysis
could be made available to communities if they needed help in assessing
the impact of an emergency on energy components.
But he hopes no community ever experiences the terrible physical damage
and dislocation of people and businesses caused by the twin beatings administered
by Katrina and Rita. “In terms of infrastructure damage, Katrina
probably will overshadow every storm we’ve ever seen,” Dodrill
said as he kept a close eye on Rita. He maintains that hope even today
as he and other members of the team stand poised for action in the event
of another hurricane or other emergency that could threaten the energy