Jun 3, 2022 - Energy & Environment

State officials warn of increased summer blackouts

Power lines and transmission towers in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California, in February 2022.

Power lines and transmission towers in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California, in February 2022. Photo: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Officials and power operators in a swath of Western and Midwestern states are bracing the public for blackouts this summer caused by higher-than-average temperatures and a human-caused extended drought.

Why it matters: Heat waves and drought conditions strain power grids and available electricity supplies by increasing demand, making hydroelectric power less reliable and raising the risk of wildfires, which can damage energy infrastructure.

  • Blackouts or power shortages during heatwaves also greatly increase the risk of heat-related deaths as people lose access to air conditioning and water supplies are interrupted. They can cost millions of dollars in economic losses.

Driving the news: A recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation found that Western and Midwestern states will face an increase danger of power disruptions this summer because of hotter weather and a deeper drought, Axios' Andrew Freedman reports.

  • A separate report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said that the drought affecting the West will have major electrical ramifications for California this year, as the depletion of state's reservoirs will likely strain its hydroelectric plants.

What they're saying: Aging power plants shutting down have also contributed to the increased risk of power outages, said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, told Axios.

  • Many states have been strengthening electric supply in preparation for such extreme events by building wind and solar farms, but Webber said they have not been constructing new transmission infrastructure quickly enough.
  • "I would not expect a widespread blackout but I'm not ruling it out," Webber said, though localized interruptions are likely "because that's just how the grid works."

The big picture: Utility officials in California and Arizona have warned of potential interruptions this summer as have officials in Midwestern states like Illinois, and North Dakota, according to local outlets.

  • California Energy Commission said the state could face a shortage equal to the equivalent of one major power plant on the hottest days this summer, per the Sacramento Bee.
  • “We know reliability is going to be difficult,” Alice Reynolds, president of the utilities commission, said per the Bee. “We know climate change is putting Californians at risk of further outages.”
  • New Mexico's primary utility company initially cautioned this year that interruptions should be expected but retracted that warning after operations were extended at a powerplant that was set to close.
  • The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates Texas's electrical grid, told Axios it "expects sufficient generation to meet forecasted demand. ERCOT will continue to closely monitor grid conditions."
  • Some experts have pointed to the grid in Texas as vulnerable this summer due to the combination of heat, drought, lower wind energy production during the summer and possible outages of any natural gas plants. The grid infamously faltered there during a cold snap in 2021.

Go deeper: Earth's carbon dioxide levels hit record high

Go deeper