As Tropical Storm Isaias swept the East Coast in August 2020, more than two million people were left without power. The outages went on for days in some places. In Connecticut, more than 4,000 people lacked power a week after the storm.
As climate change progresses and infrastructure crumbles, such blackouts may become more common. Outages have been on the rise in recent decades, and utilities might be ill-prepared to take on the dual challenge of responding to intensifying weather events and upgrading aging facilities.
The oldest American power lines date back to the 1880s, and most of today’s grid was built in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy. When these poles, wires, and transformers went up decades ago, the system was initially overbuilt, with growing demand anticipated, says Alexandra von Meier, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. But now, it’s reaching capacity and old equipment is flickering out.
Estimates on just how bad the problem is vary, though. According to an analysis by Climate Central, major outages (affecting more than 50,000 homes or businesses) grew ten times more common from the mid-1980s to 2012. From 2003 to 2012, weather-related outages doubled. In a 2017 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that there were 3,571 total outages in 2015, lasting 49 minutes on average. The U.S. Energy Administration reports that in 2016, the average utility customer had 1.3 power interruptions, and their total blackout time averaged four hours. The reason these estimates vary may be related in part to the fact that private utilities tend to be guarded about sharing data, according to Sayanti Mukherjee, a civil engineer focused on energy resilience at the University of Buffalo. “If you do a detailed analysis you will see all these sources are different,” she says. “There is a lot of discrepancy.”
According to one analysis, the United States has more power outages than any other developed country. Research by Massoud Amin, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Minnesota, found that while people living in the upper Midwest lose power annually for an average of 92 minutes, those in Japan experience only 4 minutes of blackouts per year. In a comparison by the Galvin Electricity Initiative, the average utility customer in the U.S. spent more time with their lights out than eight other industrial countries.
On top of that, utility companies have been slow to perform crucial maintenance, let alone upgrade their systems. Trees are to blame for most outages: high winds send their limbs swingings into lines. In forested places, utility providers are on the hook to trim back boughs so they don’t become a hazard in windy and stormy weather. It seems straightforward, but where there’s a lot of vegetation this can be a big ask. In forested areas, “The single biggest cost [for electric utilities] is tree maintenance,” says B. Don Russell, an electrical engineer at Texas A&M University.
Most Americans—about 68 percent—obtain their electricity through distribution systems managed by investor-owned utilities. By nature, an investor-owned utility is beholden to both its customers and its shareholders, and while customers may prioritize reliable power requiring expensive new equipment, shareholders are generally interested in profit. And that means companies might push replacements off as long as they can. “It’s a private industry,” says Mukherjee. “So besides caring for the customer, they look for profit … so they try to stretch the lifespan [of equipment] as long as possible.”
Some also argue that the companies tend to favor investors over customers. “By and large, utilities are profit-seeking entities which are granted monopolies,” says Mark Paul, an environmental economist at the New College of Florida. “What we’ve seen time and time again is that utilities effectively charge ratepayers for maintenance and then delay that maintenance. And instead, they prioritize shareholder dividends.” A case in point, according to Paul, is Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves a large portion of northern California. Earlier this year, PG&E pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after regulators found that the 2018 Camp Fire was sparked by their poorly-maintained equipment. “This is directly attributable to failure to engage in proper maintenance,” says Paul.
If performing basic maintenance now is a struggle, things will only get worse in years to come. The Atlantic Ocean may see double a “normal” years’ worth of hurricanes this year, and our extra hot summer could fuel intense blazes in the West; in an August 1, 2020 fire outlook, the National Interagency Fire Center found high fire potential in the Great Basin, California, Pacific Northwest, and northern Rockies. The effects of climate change in a given region or year will vary, but overall we can expect weather extremes like wildfires and storms to grow more intense, bringing greater potential to disrupt our already-fraying electrical grid (among many other impacts). “We’ve become more vulnerable,” says von Meier. “Climate change in coming decades is going to have a profound impact.”
Upgrading the system is no small task, however. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the American electric grid is the largest machine on the planet.
Putting wires underground, in so-called grid “hardening,” can go a long way in places prone to high winds and fire. Some utilities are putting in work toward the goal; in Southern California, San Diego Gas & Electric has started burying wires in areas at high risk of fires. But it’s not cheap. Per PG&E’s estimate, converting overhead lines to underground lines costs $3 million per mile in urban settings, and $1 million in less densely populated areas. “Undergrounding an electrical system is extremely cost intensive, and that’s why the utilities don’t want to do that,” says Mukherjee. Implementing such an upgrade may therefore require governments to partner with companies and develop ways to offset those high up-front costs.
But simply performing better monitoring can also go a long way. “We need improved situational awareness and monitoring,” Russel says. “Most of the systems respond after a failure has occurred… Now there have been systems developed that are capable of detecting failures at a much deeper level.” In his research, he has worked on developing algorithm-based monitoring systems that can essentially watch electricity circuits for abnormal patterns. This monitoring can catch a dying component before it causes an outage. Russel says that some private utilities are starting to implement such monitoring.
Microgrids may be part of the solution, too. These systems are fed by distributed sources, such as solar panels or diesel generators, which can sustain power to a local network when the main grid dies. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, “Local solutions, such as distributed generation and resilient microgrids, may offer lower-cost alternatives to major system investments particularly in areas at elevated risk from severe weather or other natural disasters.” von Meier adds that microgrids can help keep the lights on in the event of a cyberattack on the main grid, too. But it’s not a perfect solution. “When you think about who those [microgrids] are most accessible to, it tends to be high-income consumers,” says Paul. “It’s a failure to address what is a much broader issue.”
Paul envisions a more system-level change. One part of that is strengthening the government entities—public utility commissions—that are tasked with regulating private utilities. While many other countries, including European nations and New Zealand, regulate electric distribution at the national level, in America that task is covered by a patchwork of state and local entities. Paul says that these commissions are highly influenced by lobbying. “Closing the revolving door is essential.” Cities unhappy with their private electricity provider can also launch their own utility, giving residents a public option. This in turn puts pressure on private utilities to do better, as they would likely lose customers.
In the long-term, the hefty costs of upgrading electric facilities may be worth it. In the case of undergrounding wires, for example, Mukherjee says that those investments will pay off in 30 years by avoiding the economic costs of large-scale outages. While the lights are on over 99 percent of the time, sudden outages still cost at least $150 billion a year. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade this aging system.