Power OFF: Extreme Weather and Power Outages

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In early August, Hurricane Isaias knocked out power for more than 2 million customers across states in the Northeast, leaving many without electricity for a week. Before the end of the month, Hurricane Laura left 400,000 customers in the dark, and at least seven people died from carbon monoxide they inhaled from generators used during the extended electrical outages. California experienced rolling blackouts before September could arrive, as triple-digit temperatures broke records around the state.

Hurricanes, wildfires, ice storms, flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather events are growing in number or intensity. Combined with the nation’s aging electrical infrastructure, extreme weather is causing frequent damage to our electrical system, costing Americans and the economy tens of billions of dollars each year, and impacting public health. Between 2003 and 2012, weather-related outages are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion.

While for many, power outages are a nuisance and economically disruptive, they have the potential to become life-threatening in a matter of hours for certain vulnerable populations. Loss of electricity puts health care facilities at risk and can knock out essential equipment. Refrigeration, heating and cooling come to mind first. But it also halts potable water pumping equipment, and stalls sewage treatment plants, which can force the release of raw sewage into waterways.

Climate Central analyzed 20 years of power outage data, which is supplied by utilities to the federal government and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. The data show: 

  • A 67% increase in major power outages comparing the most recent decade to the first decade of the 2000s (those affecting more than 50,000 customers).
  • 34 states and the District of Columbia have had increases in major power outages from weather events.
  • Michigan led all states with 111 major weather-related power outages between 2000 and 2019, affecting an average of at least 160,000 customers each year during those two decades. 
  • Texas ranked second with 105 outages and also averaged more than 245,000 customers affected annually. (For more state information and rankings, click Data Downloads for a CSV.) 

The analysis showed regional variation, with the greatest number of weather-related outages occurring in the Northeast and the Southeast. The largest increases in outages were experienced by states in the Northeast (159%), followed by the Southwest and the Southern Great Plains, where outages also more than doubled.

Region2000-2009 Weather
Related Outages
2010-2019 Weather
Related Outages
Change %
Northeast127329159%
Southwest2451113%
Southern Great Plains4288110%
Northwest173288%
Southeast20928235%
Midwest13120355%
HI & PR63-50%
Northern Great Plains220%

Much of the U.S. transmission and distribution network, known as the grid, is above ground. Transformers, transmission wires, and utility poles are all vulnerable to severe weather, particularly high winds, heavy rain, ice, snow, and electrical storms. Even in areas where power lines are buried, flooding can lead to loss of power, as happened in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. 

So what can be done to keep the lights on? While upgrading the nation’s grid to become more resilient is expensive and challenging, there are a number of promising solutions to help us adapt to increasingly extreme weather, and many that can even lower carbon emissions. Here are a few:

  • Microgrids are self-sufficient energy systems with a smaller, distinct geographic footprint, such as a college campus, hospital complex, business center, or neighborhood. In the event of a widespread power outage on the main grid, microgrids — which can also be more easily powered by renewable energy sources — can keep the lights on.
  • With the costs of solar and battery energy storage technologies rapidly declining, developers and building owners are increasingly looking at photovoltaics and battery storage systems to replace traditional standby generators. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s grid in 2017, plans were made to install microgrids and the nation’s largest solar and battery storage system. 
  • “Smart grid” technologies are two-way communication technologies which include sensors that allow operators to assess grid stability and give consumers better information about outages. Recent research also offers the possibility of more accurate forecasting of outages from hurricanes to better support emergency preparedness decision-making when storms threaten coastal and inland communities. 
  • “Hardening” the grid includes a range of inexpensive to costly resilience measures, including vegetation management (tree trimming), replacing wooden electrical poles with steel or concrete poles, and burying overhead transmission lines underground.

METHODOLOGY

Power outage data from 2000 to 2019 was collected from the US Department of Energy’s Form OE-417 reports. Major outages are considered to be events that affected at least 50,000 customers. For the purpose of our analysis, we consider only power outages (including blackouts and voltage losses), fuel supply emergencies, and emergency appeals for reduced electricity usages where there was a reported number of customers affected or power lost. We do not include reports of vandalism or cyber-attacks. Regional definitions broadly correspond with those outlined in the Fourth National Climate Assessment with the exception of Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

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