Sep 5, 2023 - Climate

How an ice storm sent Oregon power outages soaring

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

Oregon customers experienced some of the worst power outages in the country in 2021, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration — mostly due to a catastrophic ice storm that left nearly half a million residents without power, some for several days.

Driving the news: Before 2021 (the most recent data available), Oregon's power outage rate was mostly below the national average.

  • But in 2021 it was triple the national average. Oregonians experienced nearly 25 hours of power outages that year — up from 5 hours in 2020.
  • That's the second-highest outage rate in the country, behind Louisiana.

Why it matters: Electricity outages may 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.
Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Map: Axios Visuals

Zoom in: In the past, Oregonians rarely experienced prolonged outages, except when wind and snowstorms knocked down trees and power lines. But as extreme weather conditions intensified, so did the state's power outages.

Meanwhile, that same year, the Oregon Public Utility Commission began implementing "public safety power shutoffs" to prevent wildfires. Mandatory rolling blackouts are common in California, but the concept is relatively new to Oregon.

  • This June, jurors found Oregon's second-largest electricity company, PacifiCorp, responsible for a substantial part of the devastation caused by the Labor Day fires in 2020 after internal documents showed the company willingly left power lines electrified despite high winds and dry weather.

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

  • Several communities, including one in Salem, are creating "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 national infrastructure law allocated $13 billion for modernizing the electrical grid. Additionally, 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 most likely take years for those funds to translate into real-world improvements.


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