Power outages in the US are climbing, researchers reported Wednesday, as extreme weather gets worse due to the climate crisis, the demand for electricity climbs and the country’s energy infrastructure gets older and more vulnerable.
The analysis from Climate Central, a nonprofit research group, revealed that from 2000 to 2021, 83% of all reported power outages were caused by a weather-related event, from drought-fueled wildfires to damaging storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes – many of which will only intensify as the climate warms.
And those numbers are on an upward trend. Researchers reported that outages in the past 10 years had increased by 64% compared with the previous decade.
“This is really something that we should be concerned about because this is affecting all of us and we’re seeing more of them,” Kaitlyn Trudeau, data analyst with Climate Central who worked on the report, told CNN.
“The system we have right now was not built in a time and climate we’re experiencing now,” she added. “It is not prepared for the climate that we have now, and the climate we’re going to see in the future.”
Using federal data provided by utility companies and the North American Electric Reliability Corp., researchers found more than 1,500 cases of extreme weather-related power outages since 2000, including those caused by high wind; heavy rain and thunderstorms; winter weather, including snow, ice and freezing rain; hurricanes; extreme heat and wildfires. Climate researchers have noted many of these phenomena are becoming more intense and more frequent as global temperatures rise.
Climate Central found that Texas reported the largest number of weather-related outages since 2000, followed by Michigan, California, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
The winter storm and cold snap of February 2021, for example, was the costliest winter weather event on record, resulting in multiple days with below-freezing temperatures that led to several days of power outages for millions of customers in Texas. Nearly 10 million people across the South did not have power at the peak of the outages, according to government figures.
Then in May, a heatwave knocked six natural-gas power plants offline in Texas. The state’s grid operator asked residents to limit electricity use, keeping thermostats at 78 degrees or higher and avoid using large, power-sucking appliances during peak times.
Texas utilities reported around 80 weather-related outages between 2019 and 2021 alone – about 44% of Texas’s total since 2000. Severe weather, winter storms and hurricanes caused a majority of the outages. The report also noted that the state operates its own grid independently from the countries two main grids, which makes it challenging to draw power from elsewhere during disaster events.
In California, researchers documented 44 weather-related outages between 2019 and 2021 – more than a third of the state’s total since 2000. And, they said, wildfires are a growing threat to stable electricity there. Utilities in California are required to implement public safety power shutoffs to reduce risks of equipment flaring during extreme wildfire days. At least 14 of the state’s 44 outages during that time were due to these preemptive shutdowns.
Romany Webb, a researcher at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said US utility companies need to account for the changing climate — evaluating whether existing stations are located in areas at risk of flooding, how severe droughts may affect the power plant operations, or how power lines might be impacted by increasing temperatures.
“For many, the findings won’t come as a surprise because, all across the United States, people are already directly experiencing climate change-related disruptions to electricity and other services,” said Webb, who was not involved with the report. “As we’ve seen in recent years, those disruptions can have deadly consequences. Things will only get worse if we don’t take action.”
Steven Weissman, an emeritus lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in energy law and policy, said that he would like to see the analysis expand to focus on all aspects of grid operation — and not just the transmission system — as the world looks into cleaner energy sources.
“As we move more toward these intermittent sources of energy like solar and wind, we need to shift to an era where we predict supply and then manage demand, sort of flip it upside down,” Weissman, who was not involved in the report, told CNN. “And how do you manage demand? Well, you set prices that are going to encourage people to use power off-peak. You can also encourage people to have smart appliances that would not have to take power from the grid when demand is highest.”
Trudeau said the US needs to create a more resilient and reliable power system to prevent power outages as climate change advances. Building microgrids — small, renewable-powered networks that act as backups for the primary electricity grid, in the event of a major power outage — for example, can help residents weather power outages while also reducing emissions from power generation.
When Hurricane Sandy brought heavy rain, strong winds and flooding to Northeast in 2012 and caused significant damage to electrical infrastructure, for instance, microgrids helped residents weather the storm. At the time, 21 states along the East Coast experienced widespread power outages.
She also said states must invest in smart grid technologies as well as harden the grid to withstand severe storm damages, while also providing customers incentives to reduce energy overuse during peak times.
Despite the uptick in extreme weather, Webb said utilities still haven’t thought ahead.
“Unfortunately, many electric utilities and system operators still aren’t engaging in this sort of planning, and have instead chosen to ignore the reality of climate change,” Webb said. “It is, though, quickly becoming impossible to ignore. The sooner action is taken, the better off we will all be.”
Until the US makes large-scale investments and pushes to create a more reliable and resilient power grid, the climate crisis will likely lead to more outages and force grid operators to encourage the public to cut electricity use when supply is unable to meet demand, according to Trudeau.
“There is no magic wand that we can wave right now,” Trudeau said. “But ultimately the things that we can focus on are things like cutting our emissions, because it’s the most meaningful action to slow down the rate of warming and the mounting stress on our power grid and really allow us more time to adapt to our changing climate.”