Future Tense

Why Are We Still Surprised by Large Blackouts?

Three men bending over a car battery on the floor in a dark room
Elias Mejia, Bryan Mejia, and Victor Zelaya try to connect a power cable to a car battery to charge their smartphones during a power outage in Houston on Feb. 16. Go Nakamura/Getty Images

It’s 14 degrees outside and threatening to dip toward freezing inside. You don’t have any winter-weather-ready blankets or clothes in the house, and you’re worried about your three kids and your older mother. Your house uses electric heat, and the power’s out—possibly for several more days. You light a fire in your rarely used fireplace, huddle in front of it, and go to sleep. You barely survived the house fire. In the hospital, you learn that all three of your children and your mother died in your house the night before.

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It’s snowing outside your home for the first time. Your two school-age children have never seen snow before. But after they play outside, you all head back into your trailer, and reality sets in. The power is out, and you don’t have any heat. The temperature is well below freezing outside. You huddle together with your family in one room and put your two kids in a bed together for warmth. The next day, you discover your 11-year-old child unresponsive lying next to his brother, dead. You’re later told that it was most likely hypothermia.

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It can be terribly difficult to stay safe without basic infrastructure. When you’re facing uncertain risk, action and inaction can both lead to disaster, particularly in the form of unforeseen secondary risks, like house fires or hypothermia. Academic researchers call these cascading impacts. Broken traffic lights and inoperable gas pumps make transit difficult; down cell towers and internet outages make communication difficult if not impossible; inoperable municipal water pumps can slow or stop the flow of tap water, and hampered water treatment facilities jeopardize the integrity of the water that is available, to name just a few impacts.

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Epidemiological research shows that blackouts and their cascading impacts can increase overall mortality rates by 25 percent, after the 2003 North American blackout, to as much as 122 percent, after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. These deaths are often attributed to secondary system failures, including illness from untreated or contaminated public water sources, spoiled food, or carbon monoxide from improperly used cooking or power generating equipment.

Blackouts also make it more difficult to access emergency services when they are needed. After Hurricane Maria, for example, 9 percent of rural households in Puerto Rico were unable to reach 911 operators by telephone. Residents who rely on home medical equipment are particularly at risk when emergency services are inaccessible.

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In 2020, electric utilities and grid regulatory agencies reported 383 electric emergency incidents and disturbances. (Reporting is required for emergency disturbances that meet certain thresholds. Generally, that includes major physical or cyberthreats, as well as actual disruptions to generation or distribution that are over about 100 MW or affect approximately 17,000 U.S. homes.) The risk of power outage events is growing due to a constellation of factors, including climate change, disinvestment, a quickly changing mix of supply from fossil fuels to renewables, and grid security vulnerabilities from things like cyberattacks. Recent events in Texas in February, New York City last summer, and California during both of the past two summers, and during numerous recent Atlantic storms, have rightfully received headlines. But the incident-by-incident approach to the coverage can obscure the fact that emergency electric incidents are on the rise in the U.S., surpassing 75 per year for the first time in 2004 and setting an all-time record last year.

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Chart showing an increase in annual electric emergency incidents in the U.S. from 1992 to 2020.
Department of Energy Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response
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Climate change in particular is threatening U.S. electric grid reliability. More extreme weather (both heat waves and cold snaps) increase demand. Extreme heat also reduces the efficiency of electrical transmission and distribution and causes power lines to sag, sometimes dangerously so, and warmer waterways reduce the efficacy of water-cooled thermal power plants. Extreme cold, for its part, can also cause serious problems with unprepared equipment, affecting fuel extraction and transport as well as primary generation and transmission, as we just saw in Texas. Changing precipitation patterns, including more extreme riverine flooding and droughts, pose additional challenges for water-cooled thermal and water-turbine hydro power generators.

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Besides climate change, the grid is also a difficult management problem, creating its own risks. Unlike water, food, or other essentials, electricity cannot be usefully stockpiled on the scale required for widespread use during emergencies. Notwithstanding some marginal exceptions, by and large, electricity must be used at the same rate it is created. It takes less than one second for an electron generated at the Hoover Dam to reach a lightbulb in Los Angeles. In a real-time system this sensitive, it is a tall order to coordinate changes in generation or transmission along one part of the grid with generation and load in other parts of the grid. Considering the incredible challenge, the U.S. grid is actually surprisingly dependable, achieving 98 percent reliability over 7,300 generating stations, 250 million kilometers of transmission lines, and nearly 150 million total customers.

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Despite the relative success of our grid, management institutions are not well positioned to meet new and growing risks. The current electric grid developed over much of the 20th century in a typical American fashion—loosely coordinated, lightly regulated, business-driven. The U.S. electric grid is controlled by dozens of independent investor-owned utility companies and a confusing constellation of public and private, local, regional, and continental regulatory organizations including the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit; the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a federal agency; and dozens of independent regional transmission organizations and independent system operators. Each of these organizations has a different role, some prescriptive and some observational, with varying degrees of statutory power, for different parts of the grid. This somewhat chaotic management landscape makes it difficult to modernize or harden the entire U.S. grid. The Obama administration spent years trying to implement a national “smart grid,” with little to show for it.

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The decentralized nature of our electric grid and its management also makes it difficult to identify which parts of the system are most at risk during different potential stressor events like heat waves, winter storms, or wildfires. Grid operators follow industry standard practices for prioritizing power to their customers, but these standards are set by private professional organizations, not public regulators. Because most utilities are privately owned (and even publicly owned utilities often rely on private transmission systems), there is no way to know for sure who is more or less likely to lose power.

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In this environment, it’s all too possible for latent inequities in our society to manifest in electrical reliability. In fact, preliminary evidence from researchers at Arizona State University, in addition to anecdotal news reporting, suggests that inequitable patterns may very well exist. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense; I work for ASU and was involved with this research as a Ph.D. student.)

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We know that the risk of electrical blackouts is increasing, yet, as Texas showed us, many public officials and community residents still aren’t prepared for large blackouts. One reason for this may be that in the grand scheme of things, we’ve only lived in an electrified world for a very short while. In 1925, half of Americans still didn’t have electrical power in their homes. But once it arrived, it was very reliable. Between 1950, when most U.S. households were electrified, and 2000, large-scale blackouts were relatively uncommon. Where and when they did occur, our society still had one foot in the preelectric era. More households had alternative sources of heating, cooking, or potable water, and included older residents who still knew how to get by in a preelectric world.

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However, in the 21st century, our society passed a murky but definitive threshold after which we became absolutely, hopelessly, and without exception reliant on electrical power. And unlike in 1950, there is very nearly no one among us, born in the United States, who has any experience living in a preelectric world. When was the last time you saw a hand drill in someone’s garage? Do you know how to use a washboard?

The disconnect between our perception of the innate reliability of the electric grid and the reality of its new and precarious nature may help explain why we’re often caught off guard by large power outages, and unsure how to handle them when they do occur. As the risk of large-scale power outages like the one we saw in Texas increases, we need to stop being caught by surprise and start planning for how we will prepare and adapt.

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Electric grid operators are already working to “harden” the North American electric grid to make it less likely to fail. Recent events in Texas will increase this motivation. However, there may be predictable winners and losers from a more reliable grid if equity concerns are not considered while grid hardening is planned. Utility companies and public regulators including elected officials should consider ensuring that efforts to increase grid reliability prioritize the most at-risk neighborhoods and populations, including families with small children, the elderly, and the working poor, who often do not have the resources to recover from a prolonged outage.

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State and local elected officials, emergency managers, and utility operators should consult with research partners, including federal and professional organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers and public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to identify the critical systems most likely to be affected by widespread or prolonged power failure, such as home heating or cooling, food storage, water treatment, telecommunications, and fuel pumps, and to prepare those systems for possible losses of power. Most importantly, officials need to do a better job communicating these risks—and best practices for coping—to the public before power disasters occur.

We’re still a long way from a next-generation electric grid. In the meantime, we need to be ready for a new normal where we can expect to lose power at any time, potentially for days, as our grid continues to flex under pressure from a changing natural and institutional environment.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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