Climate Impacts & The Power Grid

power grid with solar panel

Climate change is fueling extreme impacts and challenging our grid

Climate change is already fueling extreme heat, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes. It is making rare heat waves 3 to 5°F warmer over most of the United States, and they will continue to get hotter into the future. With more than half the West currently experiencing “extreme” or (even worse) “exceptional” drought, conditions are primed for a horrible 2021 wildfire season.

The toll these climate events are imposing on our power grid is unfortunate but not surprising. The 2018 National Climate Assessment warned of more frequent and longer-lasting power outages, which are slated to only get worse as climate impacts become more prevalent. Data from the Energy Information Association reflects this changing reality as the average power outage for U.S. customers has been increasing due to major weather events.

More than 90% of power outages result from failures in electricity distribution systems (weather-related events that damage poles and wires). Yet, major blackouts in California in August 2020 and Texas in February 2021, as well as unusually close calls in both of those states in June 2021, demonstrate ways that climate impacts are overwhelming our power grid’s ability to maintain adequacy of supply. 

Bad-faith actors have falsely claimed these events were caused by renewable energy. A final analysis determined the root cause of the 2020 rolling blackouts in California was poor planning and climate change. Blackouts in Texas in February 2021 resulted primarily from a failure of gas infrastructure and power plants that were not adequately weatherized — despite having endured similar problems in a 2011 cold snap and growing evidence that climate change is driving an increase in polar vortex disruptions that result in severe winter weather in mid-latitude regions

Summer 2021 may be especially challenging

Power grids throughout the West largely passed their first big tests during the summer season of 2021. As historic and record-breaking heat blanketed the western U.S. for most of June, Avista Corp. was the only utility forced to implement rolling blackouts (which were limited to a few thousand customers at a time in Spokane, Washington). 

Yet, these events are demonstrating how climate impacts are taxing the grid in new and profound ways. The June heat waves were remarkable for how early they occurred in the summer season and for having delivered the most severe heat in the history of the Pacific Northwest. The coming months could be especially challenging for grid managers throughout much of the U.S. because: 

Finally, any risk of rolling blackouts, an absolute last resort measure, should not be confused with the drastic step that some utilities in particularly fire-prone locations have taken to proactively shut down their equipment at times when weather conditions increase the risk of wildfires — so-called Public Safety Power Shutoffs. Catastrophic wildfires sparked by power lines in Northern California, Southern California, Oregon, and Washington state all illustrate the imperative, and utilities across the country are continuing to grapple with their own potential wildfire risks in a world beset with increasingly severe heat and wildfire risks driven by climate change. This season, Pacific Gas & Electric has already said its equipment may have been responsible for sparking the Dixie Fire.

Not as reliable as presumed: grid failures caused or exacerbated by gas, coal and other traditional resources 

Our electricity grid has historically relied on legacy generators like gas and coal power plants. These technologies are not immune to failure, as evidenced by numerous recent examples:

Clean resources are keeping the lights on

Despite attempts by fossil fuel boosters to shift blame, integrating more renewable energy can boost grid resilience. And clean resources are already delivering to help enhance reliability: 

Disproportionate impacts 

Power outages during extreme weather events expose and amplify existing inequities so engrained they are built into our electric grid system: 

Reliable electricity is essential. Ensuring equitable access to it for all in the face of increasingly severe impacts of climate change requires rethinking how we plan for resilience — and not simply doubling down on outmoded power generation technologies.

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