Aug 31, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Hurricane Idalia is yet another test of America's aging power infrastructure

Hours of electrical outage experienced by the average customer in 2021
Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Map: Axios Visuals

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Idalia, getting the power back on as quickly as possible will be one of the most pressing challenges — and any major delays will once again call into question the resilience of the country's aging electrical infrastructure.

Why it matters: Power outages can be one of the longest-lasting and dangerous results of major hurricanes, sometimes persisting well after any storm surge and high winds subside.

  • 2021's Hurricane Ida, for example, knocked out power for more than a million residents across Louisiana and nearby states; full restoration took over two weeks.

The latest: Hundreds of thousands of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were without power as of late Wednesday evening, per one estimate.

The big picture: Electricity outages stand to become more common as extreme weather events — many driven by climate change — wreak havoc on the country's aging power infrastructure.

  • While some outages are short-lived annoyances, others are widespread events. Either can become deadly for those who depend on medical equipment, or for those who lose heating or air conditioning during periods of extreme temperatures.

By the numbers: The average U.S. electricity customer experienced 7.3 hours of power outages in 2021 — down from 8.2 hours in 2020, but more than double 2013's rate.

  • That's per the latest available data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an agency within the Department of Energy.
  • 2021's numbers were driven in large part by widespread power outages in Texas amid severe winter weather and by the massive and prolonged outages following Ida.

Zoom out: The nationwide average of outage-hours has been trending upward over the last several years, beginning with a notable spike in 2017 driven by outages following Hurricane Irma:

Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom in: The average Louisiana electricity customer experienced a staggering 80.2 hours of downtime in 2021, trailed by Oregon (24.8 hours) and Texas (19.6 hours).

  • Washington, D.C. (0.9), Delaware (1.1) and Florida (1.4) customers experienced the fewest hours of downtime — the latter a noteworthy stat, given Florida's hurricane vulnerability.

Between the lines: Access to reliable power is increasingly an equity issue, Axios New Orleans' Chelsea Brasted reports, as wealthier people are better able to afford backup generators and other adaptations compared to others.

  • The less dependable the grid is and the more dependent people are on securing their own power, the more potent the divide becomes, said Jackson Voss, climate policy coordinator at the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.
  • Widespread generator use, meanwhile, can have an emissions and air quality impact — though manufacturers must follow EPA emissions standards.

The intrigue: Some homeowners are turning to whole-home batteries, sometimes charged via solar power, that can store backup electricity in case of an emergency.

  • A few electric vehicles, like Ford's F-150 Lightning pickup, can also act as residential power sources by funneling electricity from the vehicle's battery into owners' homes.
  • And several communities are turning to "microgrids," which can supply power to a small number of homes and businesses when the main grid goes offline.

Yes, but: While incentives exist for solar and home battery installation, they're still prohibitively expensive solutions for many homeowners — to say nothing of renters with limited say over their home's technology and energy options.

What's next: Efforts to modernize the grid and reduce outages are underway.

  • The 2021 infrastructure law allocated $13 billion for modernizing the electrical grid, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act guarantees up to $250 billion in loans for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing energy infrastructure, Axios' Jacob Knutson reported last month.

The bottom line: It'll take time — years, most likely — for those funds to translate into real-world improvements.

  • In the meanwhile, storms like Idalia could keep driving massive outages, putting lives at risk for hours, days or even weeks after they pass.
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