Should You Be Worried About Weather-Caused Power Grid Outages?

Should You Be Worried About Weather-Caused Power Grid Outages?

If you have been paying attention lately, worldwide power grids are having more outages. Many of the outages have been caused by extreme weather. Should you be worried about weather-caused power grid outages?

Recently, power grid outages were caused by an extreme weather-related event, a Category 4 Hurricane, Ian, with wind speeds up to 150 miles per hour. Between the U.S. and Cuba, there were approximately 14.4 million people without power because of Ian.

Weather-caused power grid outages have doubled over the past two decades across the U.S. If you are interested in discovering why there are more power grid outages and the extreme weather causing them, please read on.

How Does Weather Affect Power Grids?

How Does Weather Affect Power Grids?
Collapsed electrical power line sitting dangerously on top of a rolled over car after a severe weather event.

Category 5 Hurricanes are rare, and only five have hit the United States in its history. 11.4 million people lost power from Category 4 Hurricane Ian that hit Cuba and the U.S. between September 27 and 30, 2022. 

Nearly 310,000 homes and businesses did not have power in Florida the following Wednesday, a week after Hurricane Ian decimated large parts of the state and the power grid. In areas like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel in Southwest Florida, where Ian made a direct hit, it may be weeks or months without power because electrical distribution lines need to be rebuilt.

This is a classic example of the predictions and results of extreme weather and the world’s power grids. It doesn’t matter if it is from phenomena such as drought, freezing weather, or the polar opposite in a tornado or a hurricane. The world’s power grids suffer from age, overuse, stress, and overpopulation.

Utility companies often utilize rolling power grid blackouts to maintain power when all other emergency measures have failed to avoid a total grid shutdown. Power grid shutdowns can cause death in the event of extreme weather like a cold or a heat wave.

Texas Power Grid Blackouts

Texas Power Grid Blackouts
Frozen electrical lines and metal pole against a blue sky background during the 2022 Texas Power Grid Blackouts.

The Texas power grid blackouts of February 2021 left more than 10 million people without power at their peak. These power grid blackouts were due to freezing weather from poor planning by Texas, severe winter storms, and power grid age-related issues.

Texas power grid operators resorted to rolling blackouts, disconnecting communities across the state from the electric grid to ease the pressure on the system to protect it from a catastrophic failure during unprecedented cold weather.

Since 2010, 62% of homes in Texas have electric heaters, and their power-generating capacity was unable to meet a sudden surge in demand caused by freezing temperatures. Texas also failed to winterize its power distribution systems for cold weather, as the 2011 U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report advised.

The 2021 Texas freeze and power crisis lasted 17 days, with a record low temperature at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport of −2 °F (−19 °C) on February 16, the coldest in North Texas in the last 72 years. The final estimate of the February 21 winter storm death toll is 246 people. 

Why Is The Power Grid Struggling?

Why Power Outages are so Common

The U.S. power grid comprises over 7,300 power plants, nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Parts of the American power grid are more than a century old. According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Technology Assessment, 70% of U.S. power transformers are 25 years of age or older, 60% of circuit breakers are 30 years or older, and 70% of transmission lines are 25 years or older.

In the United States, 96% percent of power outages in 2020 were caused by increased severe weather or natural disasters. 

Extreme weather and climate-related threats to the worldwide electrical grid systems include increasing frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves and droughts, sea level rise, hurricanes, associated coastal flooding, tornadoes, changing precipitation patterns, ice storms, and wildfires.

“Despite the apparent increases in tropical cyclone activity in recent years, changes in observation methods over time make it difficult to know whether tropical storm activity has shown an increase over time, especially since 1878.”

EPA.Gov – Climate Change Indicators: Tropical Cyclone Activity

U.S. Department of Energy Electric Disturbance Events

The U.S. Department of Energy collects information on Electric Disturbance Events that affect the U.S. power grids with the Emergency Incident and Disturbance Report Form OE-417. This allows them to collect information on electric incidents and emergencies throughout the United States by the utilities and entities reporting themselves.

The Department of Energy uses the information to fulfill its overall national security and other energy emergency management responsibilities and for analytical purposes.

Emergency Incident and Disturbance Report Annual Summaries Links

Large Power Transformers (LPTs) and the U.S. Power Grid

Large Power Transformers (LPTs) and the U.S. Power Grid
Siemens-HVDC-1100kV-01 Large Power Transformer (LPT)

Large Power Transformers constitute a significant issue for the United State’s power grid infrastructure. Most Americans do not understand what happens if a single LPT is lost, let alone many wiped out by a natural disaster.

Large power transformers are “extremely large” and heavy, weighing 400 or 500 tons and 20-foot tall; they are special order equipment that requires a long lead time of up to 38 months to build.

There is a lack of manufacturing capacity in North America, and much of our large transformer supply has been imported for years. Ongoing supply chain issues worldwide affect manufacturing and materials. 

U.S. Electrical Grid Transformer Supply Chain Problems

In 2020 the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security Office of Technology Evaluation created a report titled “The Effect of Imports of Transformers and Transformer Components on National Security,” which says that “Large Power Transformers (LPTs) are among the most critical elements of the United States Bulk-Power System (BPS).”

“Securing the United States Bulk-Power System” “noted that as the backbone of our Nation’s energy infrastructure, the Bulk-Power System is fundamental to national security, emergency services, critical infrastructure, and the economy.”

U.S. Electrical utilities across the country have been facing multi-year supply chain issues since the pandemic and shortages of electrical equipment and transformers. “Large orders for pad-mounted transformers, which typically took between 6–12 weeks to fulfill in 2020, now have 52–86 weeks lead times.”

Securing the United States Bulk-Power System Executive Order

Without a stable Power Grid and energy supply, the United State’s health and welfare are threatened, and the economy cannot function. 

16 Critical Sectors of the U.S. Economy That Can Not Operate Without Large Power Transformers

16 Critical Sectors of the U.S. Economy That Can Not Operate Without Large Power Transformers
CISA’s 16 Critical Sectors of the U.S. Economy

Of the 16 Critical Sectors of the U.S. Economy, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency says that the Energy Sector is the most critical because it is required for all critical infrastructure sectors.

This is especially true of the top four, which are Energy, Communications, Transportation, and Water.

The 16 critical sectors of the economy that could not operate without large transformers are as follows: 

16 Critical Sectors of the U.S. Economy

  1. Chemical
  2. Commercial Facilities 
  3. Communications 
  4. Critical Manufacturing 
  5. Dams 
  6. Defense Industrial Base 
  7. Emergency Services 
  8. Energy
  9. Financial Services 
  10. Government Facilities 
  11. Healthcare and Public Health 
  12. Information Technology 
  13. Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste
  14. Transportation Systems 
  15. Water and Wastewater Systems 
  16. Food and Agriculture 

The average age of large power transformers in U.S. power grids is 38 to 40 years old. Because a single one is about two-and-a-half times as heavy as a House, you don’t just go pick one up at Home Depot.

Coast-to-Coast Blackout Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Report

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, over 90 percent of the electricity consumed in the U.S. passes through large power transformers. If several LPTs were to break down simultaneously, either from severe weather or terrorism, it would be extremely difficult to replace them for months or years. 

According to the FERC analysis, a 2014 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission leaked a report in a Wall Street Journal article and found that the “U.S. could suffer a coast-to-coast blackout,” and indicates that knocking out only nine key U.S. Substations could plunge the country into darkness for weeks, months, or possibly years.

If several sections of the American grid go down simultaneously, the shutdowns can cascade into rolling blackouts. A scenario such as this set off the Great Northeast Blackout in 2003, when 21 power plants shut down in just three minutes leaving approximately 50 million people without power.

What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?

What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?
Picture from the Tech Evaluate article “What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?”

Our article “What Happens if the American Power Grid Goes Down?” discusses key issues below with an American power grid collapse and what to do

  • Potential Outcomes if the American Power Grid Goes Down
  • Economic Losses
  • National Security Risk
  • Threats to the Healthcare System
  • Personal Devastation
  • Power Grid Failure Cause Percentages
  • Some of Recent Histories Power Outages
  • Weather Caused Power Grid Outages
  • The Age of Cyber Warfare
  • Protecting The Power Grid
  • A “Perfect” Solar Storm
  • Power Grid Failures Around the World
  • What to do if the U.S. Power Grid Goes Down
Combo Propane Gas Hybrid and Solar Generators.
Amazon.com Hybrid Dual Fuel Generators

Amazon Recommendations for Hybrid Duel Fuel Generators

Why Is California Having Power Outages?

Stress on the California Power Grid leads to power outages.

The power grid is strained amid what California officials have called “unprecedented prolonged heat waves and drought.” With 40 million people in the state and the 5th largest economy in the world, the aging power grid is overwhelmed.

Due to drought, California is forecast to lose half of the hydroelectricity it normally generates. The Colorado River is experiencing unprecedented stress from drought by being overused by many western states. 

Hoover Dam, one of the suppliers of hydroelectricity to California, is almost to its tipping point and will no longer be able to produce power if Lake Mead drops below 950 feet.

Lake Mead also has a dead-pool level of 895 feet and is the point at which water won’t flow freely through Hoover Dam and generate power. Instead, power would be needed to pump water through the dam.

U.S. Drought and Hydroelectricity

U.S. Drought and Hydroelectricity
Hoover Dam Hydroelectric power transmission lines on the Colorado River and Lake Mead on the Arizona – Nevada border.

These drought scenarios in California losing portions of its hydroelectricity from Hoover Dam and Lake Mead also apply to Lake Powel, Arizona, and other western states. Hydropower accounts for more than 22 percent of all the electricity generation in 13 western U.S. states.

“In 2021, a historic drought that affected much of the western United States led to reduced water supply and, as a result, lower hydropower generation in the Pacific Northwest and California. Electricity generation at California’s hydropower plants last year was 48% below the 10-year average (2011–2020). Mar 30, 2022”

U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Drought effects on hydroelectricity generation in the western U.S. differentiated by region in 2021 3/30/2022

The 13 Western U.S. States and their percentage of Hydroelectricity generation.

StateTotal Megawatt Hours (MWh)Hydro-power as a % of TotalPowered & Non-powered Dams
Alaska6,203,23023%96
Arizona110,126,6005.40%346
California199,997,70012.27%1,468
Colorado53,396,3002.36%1,795
Hawaii9,813,7950.93%138
Idaho15,741,96057.81%428
Montana27,573,22036.10%2,916
Nevada36,494,4807.35%512
New Mexico36,042,3200.51%519
Oregon60,164,74055.61%935
Utah42,822,5701.48%795
Washington113,321,30068.75%746
Wyoming52,395,1101.37%1,416
*National Hydropower Association Western U.S. Hydro Generation 2013

Paleoclimatology

Paleoclimatology
Blue Glacier Ice

Paleoclimatology is the study of the Earths climate history. Paleoclimatology data is atained from sources like ice sheets, glaciers, tree rings, shells, microfossils, corals, stalagmites, and ocean and lake sediments

In the United States today and the western world since the 15th century, we have focused on a growth economy on a finite planet.

The growth economy goal has always been building cities and housing and maintaining growth. Unfortunately, with continued growth and building in places like the current overpopulated U.S. Desert Southwest and West Coast, we also have another drought, as indicated in our Paleoclymatolgy history records.

Drought is cyclical through history and will always come and go, but the difference is 8 Billion people on the planet by the end of 2022. It may be hard for some to grasp that 6 out of 10 people don’t have access to flushing toilets, but that is still 3.2 Billion existing toilets and growing every day.

We also see issues from our past, like overpopulation in places like the U.S. Four Corners region and the paleoclimatology history of the Anasazi Indians in places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. 

Climate Change and Violence in the Ancient American Southwest

Climate Change and Violence in the Ancient American Southwest
A prehistoric map of the American Southwest AD 1-1500, showing American Indian living spaces
derived from COE et al. 1986, 69.

Paleoclimatology, dendrochronology (tree ring records), and archeological records show that between 900–1500’s AD, severe droughts were devastating to the Anasazi and other Native American civilizations in the South Western U.S. The lack of rain, depleted and eroded soils, deforested mountains, and over-hunted wildlife all contributed to widespread starvation.

Archaeological evidence indicates that from the late 1200s until the 1500s, the Anasazi were continually at war with one another. The Anasazi Indians fought for control of watered farmlands and for access to wild-food resources. 

These scenarios may sound familiar or maybe in our future due to weather issues. It is directly relatable, as history shows, and is congruent to our current situation in the United States and the precarious position our weather and the national power grid put us in.

Current Megadrought in the American West and Stress on the Power Grid

The megadrought in the American West has generated the driest two decades in the region in at least 1,200 years.

Droughts typically last around 20 years, but Paleoclimatology shows us that droughts can last 200 to 300 years.

In the United States, the longest 20th-century droughts covered 60 percent or more of the contiguous United States at its peak and lasted 99 months or longer.

Space Weather and the Power Grid

link to What To Do Before a G5 or Greater Geomagnetic Storm? What To Do Before a G5 or Greater Geomagnetic Storm?
What To Do Before a G5 or Greater Geomagnetic Storm? What To Do Before a G5 or Greater Geomagnetic Storm?

When we think of the weather, we don’t necessarily relate it with space weather or the sun, but we should. The sun has a dramatic effect on our planet’s weather and climate. There are geomagnetic storms and effects from how close the sun is to earth in its cyclical synchronous ever-changing orbits.

We have written extensive informational articles on “What To Do Before a G5 or Greater Geomagnetic Storm?” and “What Is an Internet Apocalypse?” 

Geomagnetic storms are naturally occurring events. When it comes to the world’s electrical power grids, it is not if but when a G5 or Greater Geomagnetic Storm hits our planet and shuts the power grids down globally. 

G5 or greater magnetic storms have happened before and will happen again. It is important that human society as a whole is working towards preparedness for such an event, especially with our global power grids, which we most assuredly are not.

Is the U.S. Power Grid Ready for Electric Vehicles?

Is the U.S. Power Grid Ready for Electric Vehicles?
Is the U.S. Power Grid Ready for Electric Vehicles?

Suppose we are barely keeping the U.S. power grid running as it is in many areas due to bad weather and drought, especially in California. How will the added load of electric vehicles be accounted for in the future?

California and New York are trying to outlaw gas-powered engines in vehicles by 2035. We wholeheartedly believe in climate change and global warming, but these people might want to pump the brakes on outlawing gas vehicles depending of course on the condition of the U.S. Power Grid.

Wind and solar power are great ideas but, in practice, are undependable and have had some dramatic, expensive failures in recent years. 

It does not mean to stop planning and moving forward, but as we have discussed in this article, there are way too many issues with the U.S. Power grid to depend on it for charging electric vehicles as a sole source of transportation.

There are approximately 290 million U.S. vehicles in 2022, and there will be way in excess of 300 million vehicles in 2035.

Even if you were to take 20% of 300 million U.S. vehicles and make them electric, that would be 60 million electric vehicles being charged daily 24/7 by the U.S. Power Grid. I think we need a reality check.

Final Thoughts – Should You Be Worried About Weather-Caused Power Grid Outages? Yes

Weather-caused power grid outages have doubled over the past two decades across the U.S. Severe weather, like drought, tornados, hurricanes, and freezing weather, is directly affecting the world’s power grids that suffer from old age, overuse, stress, and overpopulation.

U.S. Electrical utilities across the country are facing multi-year supply chain issues that directly affect the production of Large Power Transformers (LPTs). There is a shortage of these transformers and electrical supplies, which are critical to the operation of the U.S. power grid.

U.S. Droughts and the possible reduction of Hydroelectricity directly affect 13 Western U.S. States and are getting progressively worse over time. Eventually, some Hydroelectric Dams in the West, like Hoover Dam, may stop producing electricity altogether.

Space Weather and Geomagnetic Storms from the Sun are also everpresent real-life dangers that most people are not aware exist. One G5 or greater geomagnetic storm could shut down the planet’s power grids for weeks, months, or years.

We need to focus as a global community on repairing and updating the planet’s power grids to make them resilient against the ever-changing extreme weather, susceptibility to terrorism, and overuse before it is too late.

References:

John Mortensen

I am a project manager, tech writer, and science enthusiast who loves to study the latest technology, such as AI, comedy, quantum computers, smartphones, headphones, and software.

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