As Climate Change Stresses Power Grids, Are Blackouts Unavoidable?

How can it be that our power grid is failing?

A power outage during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy in Manhattan, New York. Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Of the innumerable climate change-linked extreme weather disasters of summer 2023, perhaps the most searing is the August 8 destruction of the town of Lahaina on Maui due to wildfire. With 115 confirmed deaths and nearly 150 people still unaccounted for, the Lahaina blaze is the most deadly wildfire to afflict the U.S. in a century

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While the Hawaii disaster’s causes are still being investigated, it has become clear that downed power lines played a catalytic role. Eyewitness and video accounts attest to electricity grid malfunctions, due largely to extreme wind, as the most likely source of what may have been many ignition events. And once power was lost in Lahaina, critical communication and life-support services were crippled, amplifying the chaos that rendered the local population vulnerable and powerless to defeat the oncoming flames.

This devastating event underscored that electricity grids in the age of accelerating climate impacts are acute vulnerabilities across the entire United States and beyond. Grid power essential for comfort and safety can and sometimes does go dark when it is needed most—at times of extreme weather and temperature. To make matters worse, the electricity grid itself, as observed in Lahaina, is serving as the literal spark for epic conflagrations.

Unfortunately, the loss of power due to weather—long a fact of life—has become a more frequent and deadly scourge as storms become more frequent and more severe. Epic blackouts—the summer 2000 “Enron crisis” in California, the ‘Northeast blackout’ of August 2003, in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and lower Manhattan due to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy—are etched into popular memory. But these power grid failures have become more frequent and severe due to a combination of climate-fueled extreme weather, policy missteps and underinvestment in grid resiliency. The 181-day-long grid collapse in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria in 2017 (remember President Trump tossing paper towels to the crowd?), the 2021 Valentine’s Day polar vortex in Texas (when homeowners burned furniture to stay warm), and the Buffalo blizzard of Christmas 2022: each led to widespread death and destruction previously unthinkable in an advanced country such as the U.S. These black marks on our national conscience serve as reminders that only smart, proactive and well-funded power grid management will withstand the climate threats of the near future. 

The loss of power is no trifling matter. Extending well beyond economic losses, disruptions to work and school, and inconvenience, the 2017-2020 preemptive PG&E power cuts for wildfire safety in Northern California, Hurricane Katrina blackouts, and the powerless Puerto Rico hurricane aftermath in 2017 notably led to widespread loss of life as essential services such as kidney dialysis, elder care and emergency medicine were suspended or disrupted. As extreme heat grips cities nationwide—particularly the South, Midwest and Southwest—more routinely and severely, studies show that the loss of air conditioning at the height of a heatwave could lead to massive hospitalization, deterioration of health and greater mortality. And these risks are rising: U.S. and Canada grid watchdog NERC projected in May that two-thirds of North America was at elevated risk of grid failure this summer. While the national power grid has largely held out so far (the hurricane season destructively kicked off in recent days by Hurricane Idalia may change the narrative) it is not reassuring to see these vulnerabilities persist and grow.

How can it be that in this technological era of smartphones, flying cars and Chat-GPT our power grid is failing? The reasons are manifold and complex. Northern California utility PG&E, which declared bankruptcy in 2019 after being found liable for the negligent maintenance of grid infrastructure that sparked the devastating 2017 and 2018 conflagrations, illustrates the widespread problem of grid decrepitude. America’s decentralized and complex grid structure and balkanized regulatory regimes don’t help, often leading to byzantine markets with differing and complex rules and underinvestment in transmission and distribution infrastructure. Short-term cost savings at the expense of long-term vulnerability, for example by electing not to bury power lines, and NIMBYism, i.e., communities’ predilection to block new power generation and grid infrastructure of all kinds, are major contributors. Another factor is deferred maintenance to an aging grid, with equipment a century old in places. One report found that in the U.S., “7 million miles of transmission and distribution networks were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s.” Fixing this will be expensive: one study found that $700 billion in investment will be required to replace transmission infrastructure and maintain grid reliability. 

Climate change compounds the challenge. Unprecedented heat waves all over the country strain the grid, with air conditioning and refrigeration inducing greater peak demand for power than grid operators can manage. The same is true for heating demand during polar vortex events. Extreme temperatures—not to mention floods, high wind, melting permafrost, soil erosion and coastal saltwater intrusion—corrode and degrade grid infrastructure as well, both over the long term and during acute weather events. And then there is the companion investment in removing emissions from the power system, vehicles, and buildings to decarbonize the economy and clean the air. One estimate found $7 trillion in grid upgrades and emissions reduction investments required for the U.S. power sector.

While some critics assert that investments in decarbonization draw scarce dollars and attention away from the grid reliability challenges, the reality is more complicated. In fact, investments in a range of technologies such as grid infrastructure hardening, long-distance transmission, smart grid technology, demand side management and efficiency, distributed renewable energy, and various forms of energy storage frequently serve both climate change and grid reliability goals. Reports suggest that the rapid buildout of wind and solar on Texas’ grid helped it withstand power use spikes from record heat waves this summer. Utilities such as New York’s ConEd, which has embraced a triple mandate of clean power, climate resilience and reliability in its business strategy and capital planning, believe that balancing these various objectives is not only possible but desirable. And the arrival of innovative energy businesses, addressing everything from burying utilities more cheaply to enhanced geothermal systems providing firm dispatchable power and using electric vehicles for grid power storage, is making these grid upgrades commercially and technologically feasible at a fast pace.   

Fresh ideas combining reliability with resilience and Net Zero matched with ample federal funding and a dizzying array of new energy technologies give hope, but the challenges facing grid modernization remain dauntingly vast. In the near term, reckoning with the threat of power blackouts and poorly defended grid infrastructure is indispensable for managing climate risk and ensuring reliable electricity—as Lahaina tragically demonstrated. 

As Climate Change Stresses Power Grids, Are Blackouts Unavoidable?