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Climate Change-Related Severe Weather Causes Widespread Power Outages

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

This is part two of a series on climate change and the electric power industry.

Electricity production from fossil fuels is contributing to climate change. While the electric power industry must address this issue, it must also address another effect of climate change: severe weather. Extreme weather associated with climate change is already causing frequent, costly damage to the electric power grid. But can the electric power grid withstand what’s predicted to be increasingly severe weather?

There have been multiple examples across the U.S. in recent years that highlight exactly how susceptible the electric power grid is to damage from severe weather. Hurricanes and tropical storms have whipped their way across the southeastern U.S. this summer and autumn, causing large-scale power outages lasting from days to weeks.

Near-simultaneous ice storms across Texas in February 2021, as well as in the Portland metro area in Oregon, led to days of outages as ice-covered infrastructure failed and non-winterized power generation facilities halted production. The California-Oregon intertie, also called Path 66, was de-energized for several days in July 2021 because of extreme wildfire conditions in both states.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these extreme weather events to see how and why they are taxing to the electric power grid and electricity consumers. In future posts, we will dive deeper into how to make the grid more resilient against worsening weather.

Hurricanes Lead to Numerous Outages Each Year

Hurricane Ida, the second most damaging hurricane on record to hit Louisiana, made landfall on August 29, 2021. The hurricane created an electrical blackout for over a million people in Louisiana alone. Additional outages impacted over 200,000 people in Mississippi, Alabama, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In most of the northern states, power was restored within 24 hours; however, much of Louisiana experienced prolonged outages for the entire month of September or more.

Over 100 deaths have been linked to Hurricane Ida, including several deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning from using generators without proper ventilation. Carbon monoxide poisonings are common as people struggle without electricity after severe storms. Several such deaths occurred in Texas during the cold snap of February 2021 as well.

Every year, multiple hurricanes hit the U.S., causing widespread power outages, and damaging large portions of the power grid. But rather than restructuring their systems to be more resilient, electric utilities work diligently to rebuild their system to the pre-hurricane condition. This lack of forward thinking is not sustainable.

Cold Snaps and Heat Waves are Growing More Frequent

Cold snaps, heat waves, and other extreme weather patterns are expected to continue to arise at an ever-increasing frequency due to human-caused climate change. Weather of this nature already causes long-term, widespread power outages, as was the case in Texas, Oregon, and California.

The blackout in Texas of February 2021 is a prime example of a cold snap that caused widespread outages, which left millions without electricity and led to 210 deaths. Extreme temperatures like those in Texas are over-taxing to the power grid because consumers increase their demand for natural gas for heat at the same time that more natural gas is needed to generate electricity. This increased demand paired with cold temperatures leads to a sharp drop in the amount of natural gas being moved around the state. Cold snaps and associated winter storms in areas with non-winterized power generating stations can lead to those facilities shutting down, as was the case in Texas.

The Texas blackout is also an example of an inappropriate cost-benefit analysis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) maintained Texas’ grid under the assumption that the frequency of winter storms was incredibly low, and so the benefit of winterizing power generating facilities was not cost effective. Unfortunately, this decision led to a worse situation than the 2011 blizzard in Texas, which left over 75% of the state without power at some point during the storm.

Another risk during winter storms is that of ice-coated trees falling onto power lines and leading to power outages. This was a major factor in the Portland metro area outage, which darkened homes for over 300,000 Oregonians last February, around the same time as the Texas outages.

Heat waves are similarly taxing to the power grid because of the increased demand for electricity to power air conditioners. In August of 2020, the California Independent System Operator implemented rolling power outages amidst a record heat wave because electricity demand exceeded supply.

Wildfire Risks Have Increased

An added risk during heat waves and drought conditions is that of power lines sparking wildfires. Over the last few summers, some major transmission lines have been proactively de-energized to prevent wildfires.

In summer of 2021, as the Bootleg Fire raged across southern Oregon and drought conditions intensified the risk of more fires being sparked, the California-Oregon intertie was proactively de-energized for several days. The intertie’s set of three transmission lines carry about 4,800 megawatts of power from Oregon to California; this is about the same amount of power produced by five very large generating plants, and supplies power to millions of homes. The outage meant Californians had to conserve significant amounts of energy on days with triple-digit temperatures, or face rolling blackouts.

When rolling blackouts, also called preemptive blackouts, are implemented during an extreme weather event, people suffer in many ways, from loss of perishables to risk of illness and death. Rolling blackouts have occurred several times in California over the last few years as severe drought leads to extreme wildfire conditions, fueled by a changing climate.

So, Can the Grid Withstand Severe Weather?

In its current state, Prescient would argue that the answer is no. Multiple times each year we see examples of the grid being left in a state of disrepair after a severe weather event. Moreover, extreme weather events are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity as the climate continues to change.

Rather than restoring the grid to its previous condition, it would be more cost effective in the long term to dedicate funds to improving grid infrastructure resiliency before severe weather occurs. But currently, the leadership at electric companies prefer to kick the can down the road in favor of short term savings.

In the next post, we’ll dive into why power grid infrastructure struggles during severe weather. Some reasons are obvious, other are hidden to everyone but a knowledgeable lineman, and still more are outages waiting to happen.

To learn more about Prescient’s recommended updates to improve grid resiliency and reliability, check out our next generation blog collection or our other posts, including:

Contact us to learn more about Prescient’s recommended updates for the electric power grid, or for further discussion on climate change and the electric power grid.

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