Extreme weather conditions and an ageing power grid, which needs immediate upgrades, are behind power interruptions across the US.
As the summer approaches, millions of people in developing countries such as Iraq and Pakistan are gearing up for recurrent power outages. Having to brace through a sweaty day when air conditioning and fans aren’t working is a problem generally associated with struggling economies.
Lack of investments in power plants, transmission lines and inability to buy oil and natural gas are some of the reasons why cash-strapped governments aren’t able to deal with electricity shortages.
So it might come as a surprise to learn that even the mighty United States, which has one of the largest exporters of gas, will struggle to meet its electricity needs.
There are concerns that many states including California and Texas will face power shortages in the coming years.
Both Texas and California usually have hot summers when air-conditioning use shoots up. And if there’s a fear that in the case of severe heat waves like last year there could be fatalities, experts say.
Power outages were almost non-existent in the US some thirty years ago. On average, there were less than five power outages between the 1950s and the 1980s.
Signs that US power infrastructure needs immediate repairs began to appear in the 2000s but little was done to address the problem.
In 2007, 76 electricity outages were reported. Four years later the number exceeded 300. And 2020 recorded the most outages ever, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), which is responsible for collecting and analysing energy data.
Elsewhere in the world, the electricity situation is not good either because energy consumption has gone up as economies open up after long pandemic-related lockdowns.
Last year, the global electricity demand increased to a record level - in part pushed up by the growth in the number of electric vehicles on the road.
“It was the largest ever annual increase in absolute terms (over 1,500 Terawatt hours or TWh) and the largest percentage rise since 2010 after the financial crisis,” said the International Energy Agency’s Electricity Market Report in January.
Big economies like China and India reported significant shortages of coal in the past winter, leading to serious electricity shortages in some of their cities. Many power plants in China and India like the US rely on coal as a fuel.
But what are the main reasons behind the increasing US power outages?
Ageing electrical grid
While the US is globally known for its innovation and new technologies, it has been unable to upgrade an old power grid, which was mainly built in the middle of the 20th century and now needs a serious overhaul to meet growing demand.
An electricity grid is basically the interconnected network of power plants, windmills, transmission lines, transformers and substations.
In Texas, several electricity grids are out of order as they undergo maintenance. Other states have similar problems. Also across the US, many old nuclear plants are not functioning anymore because they are slated to be retired.
Another issue related to the ageing power grid is its increasing costs. Major American utility companies are investing heavily to replace their old equipment to ensure their distribution systems run smoothly, according to EIA reports.
Around 70 percent of power transformers in the US are older than 25 years and 60 percent of circuit breakers are older than 30 years, according to a US Department of Energy report from 2015.
Also, the ageing US electrical grid is not compatible to integrate renewable energy sources like wind and solar power into its system.
Beyond the ageing grid system, the US power operators also have other problems related to the country’s long-term plan to move from traditional power plants fueled by coal and natural gas to renewable sources to meet its increasing electricity demand.
While the US energy plan sounds logical and environment-friendly, a serious discrepancy has emerged in its implementation phase because renewable energy sources are not enough to replace traditional power plants.
While many fossil fueled-power plants are being retired at an increasing level, renewables are not there to offset their disappearance from the US energy market, exacerbating the country’s electricity supply problems in the face of growing power demand.
Also solar and wind power can not be guaranteed to provide electricity every day or every hour if they don’t have large batteries to store their production for future use.
“We need to make sure that we have sufficient new resources in place and operational before we let some of these retirements go,” said Mark Rothleder, who leads the California Independent System Operator, America's largest state’s power grid.
“Otherwise, we are putting ourselves potentially at risk of having insufficient capacity,” Rothleder told the Wall Street Journal. Rothleder’s Texas counterpart, Brad Jones, thinks similarly.
“We’re all trying to find ways to utilize as much of our renewable resources as possible…and at the same time make sure that we have enough dispatchable generation to manage reliability,” Jones said.
US President Joe Biden aims to transition to 100-per cent clean energy by 2035.
The power outages in the US, which is the land of hurricanes and big storms, have also gone up due to harsh winters and changes in weather patterns.
Last year, Hurricane Ida destroyed many houses in Louisiana and killed more than a hundred people, but it also damaged the state’s electricity infrastructure, making all eight transmission lines unusable and forcing residents from New Orleans and other cities to live in the dark for days.
Besides Louisiana, the Ida swept across seven other states, leaving more than a million customers without electricity in August and September. In Texas, nearly five million residents found themselves in the dark after a deadly winter storm hit the state in February 2021, killing hundreds of people.
2020, the year the US recorded the most power outages, was also the most dynamic hurricane season ever in the country’s history, damaging many states’ electrical grids and causing Connecticut to go through much longer outages than the national average.
The same year, an ice storm also hit Oklahoma in the spring, an unexpected time for such a storm, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents in the dark. A thunderstorm, which was the costliest ever in US history, hit Iowa in October 2020, knocking out a nuclear power plant, which has been retired since then.