Freeze Across the South: Darkness is the new normal

Darkness has become the new normal.

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their power as a Blizzard days I snuck across Texas this week. Ice storm warnings continue to extend east into the Tennessee Valley, threatening to leave more communities in the dark before freezing temperatures overnight. Just a few years ago, such widespread outages were strange, rare, and historic events. Today, the data tells a different story: This is a pattern increasingly familiar across America—the weather blows up, the lights go out.

Even in a world unaffected by climate change, storms like this are to be expected, as are power outages. The links between specific events and the impact of our warming climate are often unclear—although attribution science continues to provide a clearer picture of these links. However, the statistical trend is unmistakable: Weather-related blackouts are becoming more and more frequent, and Texans are seeing more of them than anyone else.

Between 2000 and 2021, the Department of Energy logged 1,542 power outages due to weather – 180 of them are in Texas. Eligible outages affected at least 50,000 customers, and most of them — 83 percent nationwide — were caused by inclement weather.

Winter weather, including ice storms like this week, was responsible for 22 percent of the outages. Severe weather — systems that produce thunderstorms, high winds and heavy rain — accounted for a much larger share (58 percent). Hurricanes were another leading cause (15 percent), followed by smaller but growing contributions from extreme heat and wildfires — including preventative shutdowns. Each of these has cut off electricity in Texas in recent years.

Nationally, the number of weather-related outages between 2011 and 2021 jumped 78 percent from the previous decade. In Texas, the jump was even more severe, with 60 outages — a third of the total since 2000 — recorded between 2020 and 2021.

This is not a Texas phenomenon. Michigan experienced 132 significant outages between 2000 and 2021, followed by California (129), North Carolina (97) and Pennsylvania (82) — all of which have seen increases in recent years. The rise in weather-related power outages is a reality from coast to coast.

And climate change affects nearly all power-sapping weather, from greatly increasing the likelihood of thunderstorms across the eastern half of the country, to enabling a warmer atmosphere to hold more moisture and produce heavier precipitation, to helping hurricanes rapidly intensify over coastal warming. Water, to extend fire seasons across the western half of the country. As our warming climate fuels more dangerous weather, the risk of blackouts has gone up everywhere.

There are solutions. More resilient power grids and utility-scale battery storage can keep the lights on or restore power faster. Addressing the human factor—instability caused by neglect, poor maintenance, and unprotected infrastructure—can make an immediate difference. In the coming decades, cutting emissions to slow this drastic pace of change, and ultimately to ease the cap of carbon pollution that is warming our planet, will address the root causes of the problem. But as long as our power system relies on vulnerable components like overhead power lines, wind, snow and ice will always be threats.

But that doesn’t make a darker future inevitable. Obviously, weather-related outages will occur more often, driving up costs – both human and economic – and justifying investments (such as burying power lines) to keep electricity flowing in a harsher environment. This justification does not always come easily, because people struggle to imagine—regardless of preparation—a future that is unlike the past. Even when we know what to expect, we are surprised. (How often have you recently heard the weather called “unprecedented”?)

This is the challenge facing governments, utilities, planners, legislators, and everyone who depends on reliable electricity: building a system capable of powering American communities through the coming decades of increasingly erratic weather. As thousands across the South know all too well, this is not a future problem – today’s system is struggling to keep up with the present.

Gene Brady He is a lead data analyst at Central climate, and identify significant trends, patterns, and observed weather events. Brady previously worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessing the effects of climate change on waste and managing contaminated land.

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