Apr 24, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Extreme weather is making power outages trend higher

Share of major power outages attributed to extreme weather
Data: Climate Central via U.S. Department of Energy; Note: Major power outages affect at least 50k customers or interrupt service of 300 megawatts or more; Outage events can cross state lines; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

According to a new analysis, the South and Southeast have experienced the most extreme weather-related power outages during the past two decades.

Why it matters: The electrical grid is under increasing strain as climate change raises the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, from heat waves to wildfires.

  • Outages, and lengthy restore times, can cost the economy billions of dollars and lead to loss of life.

Zoom in: Extreme weather accounted for about 80% of all major U.S. power outages from 2000 to 2023, the nonprofit research and communications group Climate Central reports.

  • Such outages are defined as affecting at least 50,000 homes or businesses, or cutting service of at least 300 megawatts.
  • The majority of weather-related outages are due to severe weather like major thunderstorms, followed by winter weather and tropical storms and hurricanes.
  • The report notes hurricanes can cause long-lasting outages, accounting for most of these types of outages through 2022.

The intrigue: Wildfires and heat waves, two of the hazards most clearly linked to human-caused climate change, are becoming more problematic, Climate Central found.

  • Extreme heat accounts for a smaller share of outages but creates acute public health hazards when it does occur.
  • And wildfires have accounted for about 2% of weather-related outages during this period, with more than half of these instances occurring during the past five years.
  • Climate science studies have shown that human-caused global warming is leading to larger, more intense wildfires. In addition, wildfire seasons are getting longer across the U.S. and Canada.
  • Some of these outages were preemptive safety shut-offs by utilities to try to avoid sparking a blaze on days with extreme fire weather conditions.

Between the lines: The states with the most reported weather-related large power outages during the 23-year time frame were Texas, Michigan, California, North Carolina and Ohio.

  • The report found that long-duration outages that most frequently hit socially and medically vulnerable populations tended to occur in Arkansas, Louisiana and Michigan.

What they're saying: "Climate Central sees the increase in power outages as being related to the increase in extreme weather," said Jen Brady, a researcher at Climate Central and main author of the report.

  • She noted there were 15 heat-related major outages from 2000-2009; that number rose to 32 from 2014-2023.
  • "As not only the intensity of weather events continues to increase, but also the stress on the system from things like increased cooling demand, it is likely that weather-related power outages will continue to increase as well across the country," she said.

Yes, but: There are other factors at work too, Brady noted, such as the age and load placed on parts of the grid. Some of the load trends may be due to population growth, rather than attributed to extreme weather trends.

What's next: With the increasing recognition that America's power capacity has to grow to support generative AI and other high-tech applications, utilities are rethinking their architecture and upgrades schedule.

  • In turn, this may lead to innovations that harden the grid against extreme weather events.
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