The U.S. electric grid is unprepared for extreme weather conditions

AAmericans are no strangers to power outages. From shorter outages that are annoying enough to disrupt daily life to widespread and prolonged grid outages, residents of every state are familiar with the experience of losing power. As this story went to press, New Yorkers in 11 upstate counties were under a snowstorm emergency and bracing for “likely” local power outages, according to public safety tips.

As natural disasters become more frequent and more severe due to climate change, longer and sometimes life-threatening power outages become a greater threat. This became clear in 2021, when US power grid systems strained and sometimes collapsed during multiple periods of severe weather. The average electric customer experienced seven hours and 20 minutes without power this year, with more than five of those hours (72%) resulting from major weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires and snowstorms, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration annual report on energy released last week.

While the 2021 number is 52 minutes less than 2020, it is still among the highest in recent history and continues a trend of longer power outages due to climate events. Between 2013 and 2016, for example, the average customer downtime was three to four hours per year — with only about half of those hours due to a major event. (Figures include only outages lasting at least five minutes.)

Despite ongoing projects in the country that aim to strengthen the network, incl $20 billion in federal support of last year’s Build Back Better Act to modernize energy systems, experts say there is still much more to do. Progressively worsening outages in recent years show that Mother Nature’s forces are affecting U.S. power systems faster than the country has been able to counter them with stronger infrastructure.

A state-level analysis of last year’s data shows how more frequent and more intense weather events — rather than, say, downed rogue trees or unkillable wildlife — are driving the upward trend. In 2021, a winter storm flooded the Gulf States (i especially Texas) in an energy crisis. Atlantic storms then swept into this region, including Hurricane Ida, which caused extensive damage power lines around New Orleans. In the Northwest, disturbances stem from both extreme cold temperatures in winter and scorching wildfires and heat waves in summer that literally melted power lines.

As a result, power outages were patchy across the country, as the graph below shows. While 28 states and Washington were without power for an average of less than five hours, states like Texas (20 hours), Oregon (25 hours) and Louisiana (80 hours) experienced more severe outages. Customers in those states also experienced more power outages than most other Americans.

More and longer power outages are expected due to climate change – unless US energy systems become more resilient. “If we don’t put some kind of reliability-focused mechanisms in place, we’re certainly going to see more and more grid outages as the frequency and intensity of these weather impacts increase,” said Rebecca de la Mora, a policy analyst at the NC Center for in Clean Energy Technology at North Carolina State University.

After Hurricane Ida, for example, repairs to downed transmission towers in Louisiana included upgrades that would allow the transmission lines to withstand Category 5 hurricane-force winds. But another critical resiliency measure, solar panel installations on residential roofs, was dropped in Louisiana by 2015 when the state expired incentive programs. Only about a third of the capacity installed in 2015 was installed in 2021, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Experts say a robust and multi-pronged approach is needed to prepare for climate impacts.

“We want to increase distributed generation, which includes increasing rooftop solar for personal use and increasing the number of microgrids in communities. And we also want to improve the reliability of the larger utility-scale grid as a whole,” says de la Mora. “It’s not about [whether] any solution will do, but in my personal opinion these are all solutions.”

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