Jun 20, 2023 - Energy & Environment

The U.S. power grid isn't ready for climate change

Power transmission lines in Texas in July 2022.

Power transmission lines in Texas in July 2022. Photo: Nick Wagner/Xinhua via Getty Images

Human-caused climate change is poised to heavily strain the U.S. power grid in the coming decades, and vast improvements are needed to enhance its reliability and ability to meet increasing electricity demands, experts say.

Why it matters: The effects of new weather extremes on the grid may be seen throughout the summer if intense heat waves trigger energy demand spikes that test the limits of power infrastructures nationwide, officials have warned.

  • "We're designing our energy systems today for the past 50 years of weather and not the next 50 years of weather, and that's a problem," Melissa Lott, research director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, told Axios.

Threat level: The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit that oversees the reliability of the North American power grids, warned in an assessment last month that two-thirds of the continent face an elevated risk of energy shortfalls this summer if extreme heat events occur.

  • Last week, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the power grid covering most of Texas, issued a one-week weather watch, saying it anticipates higher electrical demand because of forecasted elevated temperatures.
  • Last summer, the grid set 11 all-time peak-demand records, and ERCOT officials asked people to conserve energy multiple times.

How it works: Climate change and global warming from the emission of greenhouse gases that trap heat from the Sun at the Earth's surface have caused — and will continue to cause — higher temperatures, deadlier heatwaves, sea level rise, exacerbated droughts, riskier wildfire seasons, stronger hurricanes, and more.

Outside of extreme events, as average temperatures continue to rise and nights and the spring months become hotter, how and when people demand energy will also shift.

  • For example, the Department of Energy expects people will use more electricity for cooling, which also increases the chance of blackouts and other power disruptions.
  • Lott noted that increased temperatures don't just alter how much electricity average people consume, but also the efficiency of power generation.

State of play: Parts of the federal government, including the DOE, have said that the power grid is currently unprepared for the extreme weather of the future and resilience upgrades are needed alongside investments in renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar.

  • The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2021 that without upgrades to the grid, weather-related power outages could cost utility companies and customers billions of dollars annually in the coming decades.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. energy system a "C-" grade on its 2021 infrastructure report card, citing weather as its most prominent — and increasing — threat.

By the numbers: The number of annual power outages in the U.S. caused by severe weather events has increased from around 50 in the early 2000s to more than 100 on average in recent years, according to a 2022 AP analysis of DOE data.

  • Not only has the frequency of outages increased, but the duration of disruptions has too, with customers on average experiencing more than eight hours of outages in 2020, the analysis found.

The big picture: Disasters in recent years have shown that blackouts coinciding with severe weather can be extremely deadly.

  • Hundreds of people in Puerto Rico died after Hurricane Maria devastated the island's grid in 2017, causing a prolonged blackout that lasted several months.
  • More than 100 people died from hypothermia during a massive, multi-day power crisis in Texas set off by a winter storm in February 2021, which left millions without electricity.
  • Power outages during Hurricane Irma in 2017 resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people across Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, including 14 elderly people at an assisted-living facility in Florida who were without air conditioning for several days after the storm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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