Can American Power Grids Withstand Increasingly Chaotic Weather?

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

More frequent extreme weather is putting a strain on the century-old power grid in the United States, leading to greater economic losses and a higher risk to human lives. Weather remains the number one cause of power outages, with 80% of all outage events attributed to changes in the atmosphere. In the last decade there has been a stark increase in weather-related power outage events, with regions like the Northeast seeing a 159% increase in major outages due to the weather from 2000 to 2019. In total, 34 states have seen a substantial increase in weather-related power outage events, with Michigan and Texas leading the way with 111 and 105 events respectively from 2000 to 2019.


Recent headlines have shined a new light on the United States’ power grid, and the future is not very bright. In just the first half of 2021, winter weather and numerous heat waves have strained regional power systems across the country.


A single-digit cold spell this past February overloaded the Texas power grid after millions of residents desperately tried to stay warm, ultimately killing 210 people. In June, California Governor Gavin Newsom urged Californians to conserve energy amid a triple-digit heat wave. Two weeks later, the excessive heat scorched the Northeast United States with temperatures topping 100°F as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a similar plea with Manhattan citizens to limit their power consumption.


The nearly 100 year-old American power grid is not powerful enough for current spikes in energy demands, or durable enough to handle extreme heat. A catastrophic heatwave in the Pacific Northwest earlier this month melted the cables that supply power to streetcars in Portland, Oregon, halting public transportation services around the city.


With extreme weather and anomalous temperatures expected to become more frequent and intense, it is no surprise that engineers and scientists express great concern over the future of our electrical systems. Outdated electrical equipment poses a serious threat, and increasing demand for heat or air-conditioning associated with temperature extremes will become increasingly disruptive.


Increasing Damage & Demand on Power Grids

As Puerto Rican citizens prepared for the impending arrival of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, they did not anticipate a nearly year-long nationwide blackout.


The Category 5 cyclone, with wind speeds of over 150 mph, knocked out cell phone service and running water, and left the entire island in the dark. It would take crews 328 days to restore power in some parts of the island. Although Puerto Rico’s rural and mountainous terrain was partially to blame for the prolonged restoration efforts, Hurricane Maria may very well serve as a precursor for a future with increasingly intense and more frequent hurricanes.


Hurricane Maria Toppled Power Lines, September 2017

Source: WNYC


While hurricanes cause physical damage to power grids, extreme temperatures trigger a demand too strong for current electrical infrastructure. When thermometers read triple-digits last month in New York City, public officials and power supplier ConEdison grew worried about potential overloads to the system as millions of residents relied on air-conditioning for relief. New Yorkers received this text message alerting them to reduce utility use to prevent blackouts.

Source: Audacy.com


New York City wasn’t the only community to face energy complications this year. Texas, California, Washington, and Oregon all battled against extreme temperatures and rising power demands.


Weather is becoming more severe, and as a result, the power is going out more. A 2013 study by the Obama Administration found an increase of severe weather events and major power outages from 1992 to 2012, with climate change as the main culprit.


A more recent 2020 study showed a 67% increase in major power outages from weather-related events since 2000, with the greatest increase happening across the Northeast, Southwest, and Southern Great Plains


Texas Power Grid Ill-Prepared for Cold Temperatures

This past February, it was nearly impossible to avoid headlines about the statewide power failure in Texas. A historic winter storm wreaked havoc across much of the lower 48 states and caused an estimated $200 billion in damages, potentially making it the costliest storm in U.S. history.


Brutally cold temperatures, combined with throttled back electricity during the winter months for routine grid maintenance, was the recipe for what would be one of the largest blackouts in United States history. As record cold temperatures plummeted into single digits, Texans turned up their thermostats, completely overloading the power plants. Sub-zero temperatures also froze over natural gas plants and wind turbines, exacerbating the emergency.


The Texas Interconnection –– the only state-run power grid in the U.S. –– became so overwhelmed that the primary electrical operator for the state, ERCOT, blew through their three tiers of emergency energy alerts in just over an hour, prompting rolling blackouts. Grid capacity was so low that officials estimated they came within 4 minutes and 37 seconds of significant damage that would have caused weeks or months of blackouts.


Source: Texas Tribune


At the peak, over 5 million customers were without power across Texas. Although these outages lasted only a few days, there was a domino effect on transportation, food supply, public health, and long-term agriculture production. In fact, WeatherOptics estimated losses to the trucking industry were around $8.3 billion.


As the weather becomes more chaotic from a planet that is quickly warming, unusual events that put extreme pressure on our outdated infrastructure will increase in frequency and intensity, and now is the time to make meaningful change and preparations.


How People and Businesses Can Better Prepare for Weather-Related Power Outages

Nearly 50% of all electrical utility companies do not currently use a predictive power outage model to estimate the impacts of upcoming weather events. This leads to longer lasting power outages and increased risk to human life.


The WeatherOptics Power Index allows businesses and people alike to quickly assess the risk of power going out in a given location on a 1-10 scale, along with deeper insights into the expected percentage of customers at risk of losing power. Our 3km grid also offers power and utility companies the ability to understand exactly where the risk is the greatest, and where to send crews before and after disruptive weather events.



The WeatherOptics Power Outage Index


Our precision and accuracy is made possible by accounting for non-weather and geospatial variables alongside our predictive weather data. We analyze how weather events like snowstorms and hurricanes are interacting with real life variables like tree canopy cover, topography, and population density.


Sources like the NWS also can provide life-saving information before, during, and after long-lasting power outage events. You can find more information and resources from NOAA here.