Extreme weather causes more power outages in U.S.-Powerbeaster

Extreme weather causes more power outages in U.S.

  Power outages from severe weather have doubled over the past two decades across the U.S., 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 the problem is most acute in regions seeing more extreme weather, U.S. Department of Energy data shows. The blackouts can be harmful and even deadly for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable communities.

  Power grid maintenance expenses are skyrocketing as utilities upgrade decades-old transmission lines and equipment. And that means customers who are 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 and we’re feeling real effects.”

  —The number of 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 even as residents endured mounting interruption costs over the past several years.

  —In California alone, power losses have affected tens of thousands of people who rely on electricity for medical needs.

  Winter storms called nor’easters barrel into New England and shred decrepit electrical networks. Hot summers spawn 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 across huge areas to protect against deadly wildfires

  The power grid’s fragility hit home for Lynn Mason Courtney, 78, a blind cancer survivor living in a retirement community in Bethel, Maine, a rural town of 2,500 along the Androscoggin River.

  When Courtney’s building lost power and heat for three days following a 2020 winter storm, the temperature inside fell to 42 degrees (6 degrees Celsius). Extended loss of heat isn’t something most people are prepared for in a cold state such as Maine, she said, and one resident relied on old camping gear to try to keep warm.

  “I developed hypothermia. I was dehydrated,” Courtney said. “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.”

  As with much of the nation, Maine’s electrical infrastructure was built decades ago and parts are more than 50 years old, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

  The brittle condition of the state’s power grid and repeated disruptions worsened by climate change worry Courtney.

  “When the power goes out, it’s extraordinarily difficult and dangerous,” she said. “If you’re disabled, it’s scary. You’re not safe.”

  The combination of at-risk infrastructure and climate change can be deadly: After Hurricane Ida knocked out power to much of coastal Louisiana last year, heat killed or contributed to the deaths of at least 21 people, local coroners reported.

  In New Orleans alone, heat caused nine deaths and contributed to 10 others, according to coroner’s office records. Most who died were elderly and African American. Spokesman Jason Melancon could not say which victims did not have power, but 75% of the city was still without power when most died.

  In California, widespread anger erupted in recent years as utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. imposed deliberate power outages to guard against wildfires.

  Almost 200 California wildfires over the past decade were traced to downed power lines that ignited trees or brush, including a record 41 blazes in 2021. Among them was a 2018 fire that ripped through the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Paradise and killed 85 people, resulting in criminal involuntary manslaughter convictions of PG&E. Another fire blamed on PG&E last year burned almost 1 million acres (390,000 hectares), 1,300 buildings and much of the Sierra Nevada town of Greenville.

  Now when wind storms are forecast and the landscape is dry, utilities cut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers, sometimes for multiple days, to reduce fire risk.

  Beyond closing businesses and causing food to spoil in refrigerators, outages can be life-threatening for people with health conditions whose medical equipment requires electricity.

  An AP review of utility filings with California regulators found nearly 160,000 instances of power shutoffs to customers with medical needs from 2017 to 2021. PG&E was responsible for more than 80%.

  Richard Skaff, a paraplegic who is an advocate for the disabled in Northern California, said he has endured two forced outages each lasting five days over the past several years. He was fortunate to have a generator to keep his electric wheelchair powered and his house heated, but said many others with disabilities live on minimal incomes and struggle to get by during outages.

 

Extreme weather causes more power outages in U.S.

 

  The intentional outages help utilities avoid liability for deadly wildfires, but they amount to recurring crises for power customers who are disabled, elderly or with special needs, said Aaron Carruthers, executive director of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities.

  Unless more is done to prepare needy communities, shutoffs will continue to put lives at risk, threaten people’s health and leave vulnerable people scared, Carruthers said.

  Gabriela Madrigal, a 34-year-old Santa Barbara resident who needs a powered wheelchair to get around, said she’s endured perhaps a dozen preventive shutoffs by Southern California Edison over the past several years.

  Madrigal — who has a debilitating, neurological condition called spina bifida — lives in low-income city housing with her mother, who is her primary caregiver.

  Each time the power blinks out, it catches them off guard, Madrigal said. When the outages last hours or days, her wheelchair goes dead. The chair weighs several hundred pounds with Madrigal in it, and her mother has trouble moving it.

  So when the power goes off and no one else is around to help, “we’re pretty much stuck,” Madrigal said. “It takes a toll on someone.”