Weather and Blackout Risk

Theo Spencer, Senior Advocate, Climate Center, New York

I think it was either Cheech or Chong who said, “I’m fed up and sick of this.” Well that’s how many people here in the Northeast where I live feel about power outages caused by storms. If people are sick of it, that’s because they’ve been losing power a lot more often over the last decade, all over the country.

That’s the finding of report issued in the last week by ClimateCentral, an organization which studies changing weather trends, and tries to understand and explain their causes. The report says an increase in severe weather has led to a doubling of major power outages across the country in the past decade.

“Heat waves are hotter, heavy rain events are heavier, and winter storms have increased in both frequency and intensity,” the report says. “To date, these kinds of severe weather are among the leading causes of large-scale power outages in the United States.”

No power means no lights, no heat, no AC, no cell phone charging, no cordless phone, no TV, no elevators, no traffic lights and probably no work. It can also mean dangerous downed power lines, roads blocked by snapping power lines or trees, emergency services difficult to access, hospitals destabilized and a host of other serious problems.

American Electric Power (AEP) has service territory in 11 states and was one of the worst-impacted electricity suppliers, according to the report.

“(Al)most any storm system that moves across the country is going to hit part of AEP’s service area,” AEP spokeswoman Tammy Ridout told the Columbus Dispatch. AEP is headquartered in Columbus (OH).

The study analyzed 28 years of power outage data, supplied to the federal government and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation by utilities. It also found:

  • A tenfold increase in major power outages (those affecting more than 50,000 customer homes or businesses), between the mid-1980s and 2012. Some of the increase was driven by improved reporting. Yet even since 2003, after stricter reporting requirements were widely implemented, the average annual number of weather-related power outages doubled. Non-weather related outages also increased during that time, but weather caused 80 percent of all outages between 2003-2012.
     
  • 147 million customers lost power, for at least an hour and often far longer, from weather-related outages since 2003, an average of 15 million customers affected each year. Currently, there are 145 million customers in the U.S. A customer is a home or a business, or anyone who receives a bill from a utility, so the number of people affected by outages is likely much higher, from 300 million to perhaps half a billion or more over the decade analyzed.
     
  • 59 percent of weather-related outages analyzed were caused by storms and severe weather; nearly 19 percent by cold weather and ice storms; 18 percent by hurricanes and tropical storms; 3 percent tornadoes, and 2 percent by a combination of extreme heat events and wildfires.

Most of these outages come from damage to large transmission lines or substations, as opposed to the smaller residential distribution network.

The culprit? “Climate change is causing an increase in many types of extreme weather,” the study says.

Utilities like AEP and Connecticut Light and Power here in the Northeast are spending hundreds of millions dollars trimming tree limbs near power lines and storm-fortifying electrical substations. In a landmark case, the New York Public Service Commissioned required Con Edison to spend nearly a billion dollars to implement state-of-the-art measures to plan for and protect its electric, gas, and steam systems from the effects of climate change. The commission’s decision noted the “obligation to address these considerations should be broadened to include all utilities.”

All extreme weather events can’t be linked to climate change. But the increasing number and severity can. To stave off the worst future impacts we need to act soon--as a series of UN reports made clear—to cut down the carbon pollution that’s the main cause of climate change. The pollution comes mainly from vehicles and power plants.

The Obama Administration has already issued aggressive standards for vehicles and is in the process of issuing standards for new and existing power plants. Vehicles and power plants are the largest sources of carbon pollution in the United States. NRDC has a groundbreaking strategy for reducing emissions from existing power plants in an equitable and economically viable way.

President Obama has also placed an emphasis on preparing for the impacts of climate change.

The need is clear. Solutions are available. We need to act now.

Photo Credit: Weather and Blackouts/shutterstock