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Freeze across the South: Darkness is the new normal

Frozen power lines are seen hanging near a sidewalk on February 01, 2023 in Austin, Texas. A winter storm is sweeping across portions of Texas, causing massive power outages and disruptions of highways and roads. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Frozen power lines are seen hanging near a sidewalk on February 01, 2023 in Austin, Texas. A winter storm is sweeping across portions of Texas, causing massive power outages and disruptions of highways and roads. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Darkness is becoming the new normal.

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost power as a days-long ice storm has crept across Texas this week. Ice storm warnings still extend eastward into the Tennessee Valley, threatening to leave even more communities in the dark ahead of freezing overnight temperatures. Not many years ago, widespread outages like this were freak events, rare and historic. Today, the data tell a different story: This is an increasingly familiar pattern across America — weather erupts, and the lights go out.

Even in a world unaffected by climate change, storms like this would be expected to happen, and so would power outages. Links between particular events and the influence of our warming climate are often unclear — although attribution science continues to provide a sharper picture of these connections. The statistical trend is unmistakable, though: weather-related power outages have become more and more frequent, and Texans see more of them than anyone else.

Between 2000 and 2021 the Department of Energy logged 1,542 major weather-related power outages — 180 of them in Texas. Qualifying outages affected at least 50,000 customers, and most — 83 percent nationwide — were caused by bad weather.

Winter weather, including ice storms like this week’s, accounted for 22 percent of outages. Severe weather —systems that produce thunderstorms, high winds, and heavy rain — accounted for a far greater share (58 percent). Hurricanes were another key culprit (15 percent), followed by smaller but growing contributions from extreme heat and wildfires — including preemptive shutoffs. Every one of these has shut off power in Texas in recent years.

Nationwide, the number of weather-related outages between 2011 and 2021 jumped 78 percent over the previous decade. In Texas, the jump was even more severe, with 60 outages — one-third of the total since 2000 —logged between 2020 and 2021.

This is not a Texas phenomenon. Michigan saw 132 major outages between 2000 and 2021, followed by California (129), North Carolina (97)  and Pennsylvania (82) — all experiencing increases in recent years. The rise in weather-related power outages is a coast-to-coast reality.

And climate change influences almost all of the weather conditions that knock out power, from significantly boosting thunderstorm potential across the eastern half of the country, to enabling a warming atmosphere to hold more moisture and produce heavier precipitation, to helping hurricanes rapidly intensify over warming coastal waters, to expanding fire seasons across the western half of the country. As our warming climate fuels more dangerous weather, the risks of power outages have shot up everywhere.

There are solutions. More resilient power grids and utility-scale battery storage can keep the lights on or restore power faster. Addressing the human factor — instability caused by neglect, poor maintenance and unprotected infrastructure — can make an immediate difference. In the coming decades, cutting emissions to slow this furious pace of change, and eventually to thin the blanket of carbon pollution overheating our planet, will address the root causes of the problem. But as long as our power system relies on vulnerable components like overhead powerlines, wind, snow and ice will always be threats.

That doesn’t make a darker future inevitable, though. It’s clear that weather-related outages will happen more often, driving up costs–human and economic — and justifying investments (like burying power lines) to keep electricity flowing in a harsher environment. That justification doesn’t always come easy, because people struggle to imagine — never mind prepare for — a future that doesn’t look like the past. Even when we know what to expect, we’re surprised. (How often do you hear weather called “unprecedented” lately?)

That’s the challenge facing governments, utilities, planners, lawmakers and everyone who depends on reliable electricity: building a system capable of powering American communities through the coming decades of increasingly volatile weather. As thousands across the South know all too well, this is not a future problem — today’s system is struggling to keep up with the present.

Jen Brady is lead data analyst at Climate Central, identifying significant trends, patterns and notable climate events. Brady previously worked at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluating the climate change impacts of waste and contaminated land management.

Tags 2021 freeze Climate change Energy ice storm Jen Brady Power grid power outage Texas freeze Texas power grid Texas power outages Winter storm Winter weather

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