Storms batter aging power grid as climate disasters spread
Power outages from severe weather across the U.S. have doubled over the past two decades, as a warming climate stirs more destructive storms that cripple broad segments of the nation’s aging electrical grid, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data.
Forty states are experiencing longer outages — and they're worst in areas where weather is getting more extreme, data shows. The blackouts can be harmful, even deadly, for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable communities.
And power grid maintenance expenses are skyrocketing as utilities upgrade decades-old transmission lines and equipment. So customers hit with more frequent and longer weather outages also are paying more for electricity.
“The electric grid is our early warning, ” said University of California, Berkeley grid expert Alexandra von Meier. “Climate change is here.”
The AP found:
— Outages tied to severe weather rose from about 50 annually nationwide in the early 2000s to more than 100 annually on average over the past five years.
—The frequency and length of power failures are at their highest levels since reliability tracking began in 2013 — with U.S. customers on average experiencing more than eight hours of outages in 2020.
—Maine, Louisiana and California each experienced at least a 50% increase in outage duration.
—In California alone, power loses have affected tens of thousands of people who rely on electricity for medical needs.
The AP analyzed electricity disturbance data submitted by utilities to the U.S. Department of Energy to identify weather-related outages, including how long they lasted and how often they occurred.
Driving the increasing blackouts are winter storms called nor'easters that barrel into New England and shred decrepit electrical networks. Summers bring hurricanes that pound the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard, plunging communities into the dark sometimes for months. And in fall, West Coast windstorms trigger forced power shutoffs to protect against deadly wildfires.
The grid's fragility hit home for Lynn Mason Courtney, 78, a blind cancer survivor in Bethel, Maine. When her retirement community building lost power and heat for three days following a 2020 winter storm, the temperature inside fell to 42 degrees (6 degrees Celsius). She developed hypothermia.
“Two people on oxygen had nowhere to go. They just stayed in the apartment and hoped like hell that the power would come back on,” Courtney said. “If you’re disabled, it’s scary. You’re not safe.”
Maine suffered record numbers of weather-related interruptions in recent years. Storms left more than 500,000 customers without power in winter 2017 — more than a third of the state’s population.
As the planet warms, extreme weather that threatens power reliability will likely hit some areas harder, said Penn State University meteorologist Colin Zarzycki.
A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing energy packed by storms. The phenomenon produces more destructive tropical hurricanes in the Southeast and storms that cause flooding on the West Coast.
“Those really high-end nor’easters, the ones that take over CNN for days, those are going to occur with the same or increased frequency,” Zarzycki said.
After Hurricane Ida knocked out power in coastal Louisiana last year, heat killed or contributed to deaths of at least 21 people, local coroners reported.
David Sneed, 65, died in the 12th-floor apartment where he’d been without power for several days after the storm hit Aug. 29.
Sneed was obese and had a cognitive impairment, so he usually used a wheelchair, said Rev. Ken Taylor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where Sneed was a doctoral student.
Taylor checked on Sneed after the storm and said his apartment felt like 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius). Six days after the storm, the power was back but when Taylor visited he got no answer.
Sneed's body was found in his apartment, slumped in his wheelchair. He died from the heat, the coroner ruled.
“I speculate that he had rolled into his bedroom to put on some pants to go downstairs,” Taylor said.
The financial toll is steep. Louisiana regulators approved $3.2 billion in charges from hurricane damages in 2020 and 2021, which utility Entergy Corp. estimates will cost the average residential customer almost $100 annually for 15 years.
Most U.S. power transmission facilities are at least 25 years old. Utilities have quadrupled spending on them since 2000 to about $40 billion annually, according to Department of Energy data.
Billions more are set to be spent, with costs borne by consumers. Yet the effort won’t keep up with climate change, said U.C. Berkeley's von Meier. “Rates will go up, reliability will go down,” she said.
Almost 200 California wildfires over the past decade were traced to downed power lines. Among them, a 2018 fire that ripped through the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Paradise and killed 85 people, resulting in criminal convictions of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the nation's largest utility.
Now when windstorms and dry conditions are forecast, utilities cut power preventively. That's potentially life-threatening for people with medical equipment that requires electricity.
An AP review of California utility filings found almost 160,000 power shutoffs to customers with medical needs since 2017.
Utilities have sought to lessen the impacts by distributing portable batteries and setting up centers where people can charge essential devices.
PG&E Vice President Sumeet Singh said shutoffs are a last resort and have been reduced in size in part through better forecasting of hazardous weather. “We know there has been a trade-off between safety and reliability,” Singh said.
By year's end, PG&E expects to have spent almost $15 billion since 2020 on wildfire prevention. It's cutting back vegetation near equipment and plans to bury 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of lines over 10 years so they won't be exposed to falling trees.
For now the shutoffs are set to continue.
Richard Skaff, a paraplegic and advocate for the disabled in Northern California, said he endured two forced outages each lasting five days. He had a generator to keep his electric wheelchair powered and house heated, but said others with disabilities live on minimal incomes and struggle during outages.
“If we’re going to allow PG&E and others to de-energize the grid...you have to determine the effects on the most vulnerable people," Skaff said.
Associated Press data journalist Caroline Ghisolfi contributed to this article.
Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana, Patrick Whittle from Bethel, Maine, Janet McConnaughey from New Orleans and Jasen Lo from Chicago.
AP data journalist Camille Fassett in Oakland, California is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics.