Report: Extreme weather-related blackouts are on the rise

Climate change is wreaking havoc on our electrical grid

Topics: Extreme weather, Power outages, electrical grid, Microgrid, Blackout,

It’s not just your imagination: weather-related power outages are happening a lot more often than they used to. It’s yet another effect of the increasingly crazy weather we’re seeing — weather that, with climate change, is only expected to get crazier. In other words, as a new report from Climate Central emphasizes, climate change is a nightmare for our electrical system.

Between the mid-1980s and 2012, the report found, the number of major power outages (“major”, in this case, meaning they affected more than 50,000 homes or businesses) increased tenfold. Some of that may be due to inconsistent reporting, but since 2003, when that reporting improved, it found that weather-related blackouts have doubled. About 147 million customers lost power for at least an hour between 2003 and 2012. And major outages, according to recent estimates, cost Americans between $20 and $55 billion every year.

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What kind of weather are we talking about? The report sorts the outages by cause, and found weather responsible for the vast majority of all outages. Specifically, “59 percent of weather-related outages analyzed were caused by storms and severe weather; nearly 19 percent by cold weather and ice storms; 18 percent by hurricanes and tropical storms; 3 percent tornadoes, and 2 percent by a combination of extreme heat events and wildfires.”

Another major problem, researchers are pointing out, is the grid’s massive size — it’s gotten to the point where massive power outages can be caused by something as simple as one fallen tree. But the connection to our warming planet is clear. The report explains that climate change, which is expected to bring an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that will further strain the grid, acts here as a “threat multiplier”:

Climate change is, at most, partially responsible for this recent increase in major power outages, which is a product of an aging grid serving greater electricity demand, and an increase in storms and extreme weather events that damage this system. But a warming planet provides more fuel for increasingly intense and violent storms, heat waves, and wildfires, which in turn will continue to strain, and too often breach, our highly vulnerable electrical infrastructure.

As that happens, we’re going to need a better system in place.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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