Climate change is fueling extreme impacts and challenging our grid
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 some more recent close calls, demonstrate ways that climate impacts are overwhelming our power grid’s ability to meet demand, keep the lights on and heating and cooling systems running.
Disinformation runs rampant
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 combined with a climate change-induced extreme heat event that pushed electricity demand to exceed supply. 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. There is also growing evidence that climate change is driving an increase in polar vortex disruptions that result in severe winter weather in mid-latitude regions.
While mainstream and local media have correctly attributed the causes for these grid failures, analysis from Friends of the Earth found that right-wing outlets and fossil fuel-funded interests have exploited social media to spread disinformation.
Grid failures caused or exacerbated by fossil fuel 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:
- California’s grid narrowly survived a June 2021 heatwave, though it was pushed even closer to the brink by the breakdown of several ‘old clunker’ gas-fired plants and another that was offline after a turbine exploded.
- In June 2021, the Texas grid nearly failed because at least 8 gigawatts of thermal resources, including several large gas plants went offline unexpectedly.
- The Texas blackouts in February 2021, an event that killed 246 Texans and left more than 10 million people without power, resulted after plant outages far exceeded the local grid operator’s expectations. An estimated 45 gigawatts, more than half of Texas’s winter generating capacity, were offline due to the storm. Outages at gas plants were the primary culprit for the electricity system failure. It was not the first time. Extreme cold events caused major grid issues for eastern and southern states during the January 2014 polar vortex and for Texas and Southwestern states in February 2011. And the risks of another failure have not disappeared, as displayed when a milder cold front in early January 2022 again caused gas production to buckle and knocked almost 12% of the state’s power plant capacity offline (more than half from gas units).
- The August 2020 blackouts in California, which forced more than 800,000 homes and businesses to endure rolling blackouts over the course of two days, were compounded by failures at two different gas plants.
- Extreme heat erodes the generating potential of conventional power plants. Both high ambient air temperatures and elevated cooling water temperatures reduce the efficiency and available capacity of power plants. This was demonstrated by the derating of California’s gas fleet capacity that also contributed to the August 2020 blackouts, and there are numerous examples of drought or elevated water temperatures forcing plants to shut down.
- The failure of the Aliso Canyon gas storage field in October 2015 threatened the reliability of the Southern California grid. The event sickened or otherwise affected tens of thousands of local residents, exposed California’s overreliance on gas, and forced regulators to scramble to secure replacement resources.
Clean resources are keeping the lights on
Despite attempts by the fossil fuel industry and its allies to incorrectly shift blame, integrating more renewable energy can boost grid resilience, and wean us off the fossil fuels that are making climate impacts worse. Clean resources are already delivering to help enhance reliability:
- Supply on the California grid is already benefiting from the increasing contribution of new solar, battery storage, and successful demand response resources. Following the 2020 blackouts, California’s energy agencies reaffirmed their commitment to meeting the state’s clean energy goals and in June 2021 the state’s energy regulators voted to add another 11.5 gigawatts of clean power and battery storage to the system to help respond to extreme weather.
- During the Texas blackouts in February 2021, solar was the only generation source to overperform its expected output. In the wake of the blackouts, investors doubled down on pouring money into clean energy projects — in total, wind, solar and battery-storage projects in the state are worth up to $25 billion. More than 6 gigawatts of new solar and almost 4 gigawatts of wind generation are expected to be added to the Texas grid in 2022.
- Worsening wildfires and heat waves in California have led to a boom in solar-and-storage — from individuals, communities, and larger projects. Nationwide, the number of households with solar panels and battery storage was expected to double by the end of 2021, as homeowners seek to take control of their own power in the face of increasing threats of blackouts.
- Following the failure of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, California utilities were able to avoid dire blackout predictions by quickly embracing new renewable energy, energy storage, and demand response programs — and its success proved that battery storage technology could live up to high expectations.
Power outages during extreme weather events expose and amplify existing inequities so engrained they are built into our electric grid system:
- During the Texas freeze in February 2021, low-income communities and communities of color suffered disproportionately and faced a longer road to recovery. Experts say Texas utilities prioritized keeping power on in areas near critical infrastructure such as hospitals and supermarkets, which tend to be located in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.
- In California, pre-emptive power shut-offs to prevent wildfires also disproportionately impact low-income and communities of color, and experts say that more data is needed to fully understand the impact on already vulnerable populations.
- More policies and programs are needed to protect vulnerable communities and residents that can’t afford power back-up.
Reliable, clean 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 outdated power generation technologies.