By Douglas Kaye, Founder and President
Climate change has upped the ante on extreme weather events, and now we must up the ante on how we prepare.
A warmer world doesn’t only mean more record heat and longer heat waves, it means a climate with more extreme cold temperature outbreaks as well. It means more drought and wildfires, extreme rainfall events and flooding. It means more extreme ice and snow. It means tropical storms and hurricanes that are slower, wetter, and have the potential to cause more devastation. All of which have the power to take away the invisible force that powers virtually everything in our homes: electricity.
Power outages from severe weather across the US have doubled over the past two decades as a warming climate stirs more destructive storms that cripple broad segments of the nation’s aging electrical grid. The increasingly violent weather and more frequent damage to our aging electrical system will affect hundreds of millions of people with large-scale power outages and cost the American economy tens of billions of dollars each year.
2020 was a record-breaking year for power outages in the United States, according to an Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis. In 2020, 1.33 billion hours of power outages affected the United States, which was 73% higher than in 2019. The average American home endured more than eight hours without power, more than double the outage time in 2015.
Major weather events are primarily to blame. 2020 was the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever documented, with five hurricanes dealing repeated blows to Louisiana’s grid. The state's residents suffered the longest outages, enduring 60 hours on average without electricity. Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out power for about 750,000 customers in Connecticut, another state that suffered longer outages than the national average. In addition to cyclones, an ice storm wiped out electricity for 300,000 customers in Oklahoma in October 2020. A derecho in Iowa — the costliest thunderstorm in US history — damaged a nuclear power plant so badly that it had to be retired early. Without these extreme events, outages caused by small snags (like pesky wildlife and tree-trimming gone wrong) would have stayed roughly flat at about two hours a year since 2013 (see below).
In 2021, 1.2 million customers lost power across eight states in August and September because of Hurricane Ida. A wave of abnormally severe winter storms and prolonged freezing temperatures caused a disastrous power failure in Texas, leaving more than 4.5 million people completely without power in frigid temperatures in February. 10 million people were in the dark for days and 200 people died as a result.
In June of 2021, California was stricken by repeated heat events, the prospect of worsening drought, and incremental resource delays. They braced for an energy crisis. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) declared a “significant event,” similar to one it was forced to implement during periods of rotating blackouts on Aug. 14 and 15, 2020.
Utilities across the U.S. Pacific Northwest braced for exceptional stress on the grid as record-breaking temperatures in late June continued and at least one utility—Avista Corp.—began rolling outages as a measure to alleviate strain on the electric system.
In July, a heatwave prompted New York City to issue a rare emergency call for energy conservation.
And in December of 2021, ISO New England (ISO-NE) warned that New England faces a precarious fuel supply risk that could necessitate emergency actions if a severe prolonged cold snap hits the region in 2022. The grid operator said it is cautiously watching three “variables that could put the region in a more precarious position than past winters” and force the ISO to “take emergency actions, up to and including controlled power outages.
Analysis from an AP study found:
- The number of outages tied to severe weather rose from about 50 annually nationwide in the early 2000s to more than 100 annually on average over the past five years
- The frequency and length of power failures are at their highest levels since reliability tracking began in 2013, with US customers on average experiencing more than eight hours of outages in 2020.
- Maine, Louisiana, and California each experienced at least a 50% increase in outage duration even as residents endured mounting interruption costs over the past several years.
Some of worst outages in the U.S. during the last five years were all weather related.
- Maine 2017: Wind storm (42 hours)
- Florida 2017 Hurricane Irma (45 hours)
- North Carolina 2018: Hurricane Florence (31 hours)
- Connecticut 2020: Tropical Storm Isaias (50 hours)
- Alabama 2020: Multiple Gulf hurricanes (55 hours)
- Louisiana 2020: Multiple Gulf hurricanes (72 hours)
No season and no area of the country is excluded from extreme weather and the increasing frequency in which we are witnessing it.
Winter storms called nor’easters barrel into New England and shred decrepit electrical networks. Hot summers spawn hurricanes that pound the Gulf coast and eastern seaboard, plunging communities into the dark, sometimes for months. And in fall, west coast windstorms trigger forced power shutoffs across huge areas to protect against deadly wildfires from downed equipment.
Our warming planet provides more fuel for increasingly intense and violent storms, heat waves, extreme cold and wildfires which in turn will continue to strain and too often breach our highly vulnerable electrical infrastructure.
Climate change is powering extreme weather. The need to empower ourselves has never been more important.