Lights out


Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman from Texas, is tilting at windmills. “Intermittent renewable energy like wind isn't there when you need it,” Mr Crenshaw tweeted on February 16th, after a winter storm led to power outages across the state, leaving millions of Texans in the dark. “This raises serious concerns about the reliability of renewable-reliant power grids during extreme weather,” he warned. Although Mr Crenshaw is wrong to single out renewable energy—natural-gas pipelines, nuclear reactors and transmission lines also iced up during the storm—concern about America’s power grid is justified. Power outages are on the rise, and weather alone is not to blame.

The United States suffered 383 “electric disturbance events” in 2020, according to the Department of Energy (DoE), up from 150 in 2017. Utilities and grid operators are required to report such incidents to the DoE when they meet certain conditions, such as when power losses are significant or when they are the result of a cyber-attack. Causes range from sabotage and vandalism to fuel-supply problems and earthquakes. Extreme weather can also lead to power outages when demand for heating or air-conditioning pushes the electricity grid beyond its capacity. But according to the DoE’s data, outages are more frequent in spring and autumn, as well as summer and winter, suggesting that more than just weather is behind the recent surge in blackouts.

America’s creaking infrastructure is partly to blame. Some 70% of the country’s large power transformers and transmission lines are at least 25 years old, according to the DoE; 60% of circuit breakers are 30 years or older. Poor monitoring and inadequate control infrastructure also play a part. Grid operators must be able to see and respond to potential disturbances quickly, using modern sensors and software. Red tape also slows things down. Grid projects sometimes require the approval of regulators in several states, as well as the federal government. Finally, there’s distribution, the most expensive part of the system and the most difficult to upgrade. Roughly 90% of outage minutes originate where customers connect to the grid.

Extreme-weather events such as the Texas storm will continue to strain America’s already overburdened electricity grid. Without more resilient infrastructure, many more of its residents will end up in the dark.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.