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Report: Weather-related power outages on the rise across the country

Power lines
Ryan Sun
Fallen trees and power lines block a road in Pebble Beach, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024 in the wake of powerful storms. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Over roughly the last two decades, the number of weather-related power outages in the United States has increased substantially, according to a new report.

“Many types of extreme weather are becoming more frequent or intense because of human-caused climate change,” Climate Central noted in the report. “These events put stress on aging energy infrastructure and are among the leading causes of major power outages in the U.S.”

“The nation’s electrical grid wasn't built for the present-day climate,” it continued.

The nonprofit looked at major outages – those affecting at least 50,000 customers or interrupting service of 300 megawatts or more – between 2000 and 2023. There were roughly twice as many such incidents in the last decade than the first 10 years of the analysis. The report notes outages are much more than inconveniences, and can turn deadly when AC, heating or medical equipment shuts off.

Western regions had fewer large outages. But Juan Pablo “J.P.” Carvallo, who studies energy system resilience at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a major issue in our region. For one, smaller outages aren’t captured in the data, he noted. Also, the report compares the total number of outages between states and regions with very different populations and areas.

“That's really not a normalized metric,” he said.

He suggested a number of measures to increase resiliency, like burying utility lines.

“At the community level, we can have microgrids where many customers go together, and with the right equipment, you can create small utilities that run for emergency cases,” he said.

Communities can also build centers powered with batteries and solar energy where those who lose electricity can get shelter, charge devices, and stay warm or cool.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.