By Sam Wasson
Updated Jan 23, 2023
In February of 2021, major portions of the Texas electricity grid failed. This event left millions of homeowners without electricity for several weeks. Similarly, in the summer of 2022, rolling blackouts and brownouts were common for many states in the central to western portions of the United States. With the summer of 2023 on the horizon, many states are issuing warnings that we may experience even more blackouts this year.
The reason behind these blackouts is complex but can be simplified into two general causes, grid stress and climate change. Grid stress is also the main cause for fluctuations in energy bills, and a major factor in the recent changes to California’s net metering law, NEM 3.0. But what is grid stress, and why does it impact everything from seasonal blackouts to your electricity bill going up? In this article, we’ll explain how the U.S. electrical grid functions, why homeowners are suffering from more blackouts each year, and go over all the ways you can help your local power grid avoid them.
The United States electrical grid is a massive system of power lines, generators, distribution stations, and other equipment that transmits power from power plants to your home. The grid first arose in 1882 in Manhattan and New Jersey. These systems used copper wires and direct current (D.C.) to transmit electricity to local companies. Since then, the grid has grown to encompass all 50 states, maintains nearly 12,000 power plants, and produces over 4,108 billion kilowatts of electricity for 145 million customers. While many think of the electrical grid as a single system, it’s divided into three main sections: the Eastern, Western, and Texas Interconnected Systems.
The electricity you use to power your home and appliances comes from one of the many power plants in the country. These plants use various methods to produce electricity, the most popular of which is burning fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, and oil. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels account for about 60% of the power produced in the U.S., with 20% going to nuclear power with the remaining 20% going to clean energy sources like wind and solar power. The electricity is sent through high-voltage lines to local substations and distribution centers (utility companies). Substations then convert the high-voltage electricity into a more usable, lower voltage sent to nearby homes and businesses.
Blackouts, or power outages, are when something stops the transmission of electricity from the grid to one or multiple homes. Any disruption in the grid, from the beginning at the power plant to your local transformer, can cause outages — the most common form of blackout results from errors in or damage to local distribution systems. Whenever an outage occurs from a tree limb falling on a power line or a car crashing into a telephone pole, that is a distribution error. These outages can vary wildly in scope and length, affecting a single street to entire city sections. The time frame for these blackouts varies, with small incidents resulting in a loss of power for a few hours and longer ones lasting multiple days.
Other kinds of blackouts can include those caused by intentional shutdowns, long-range transmission failures, and a lack of available electricity. In many cases, large-scale blackouts, like the California Electricity Crisis of the early 2000s, are caused by multiple factors coinciding. Often, one problem in a power grid will result in other elements becoming compromised or stressed, resulting in a cascade of failures and larger blackouts.
Grid stress is best described as the balance between electricity demand and the amount of energy available within the grid. Grid stress increases as more households, businesses, and other devices or systems pull electricity from the grid. The higher the local energy consumption and the less electricity available, the higher the stress. Grid stress can be increased if other factors, like weather, human error, and system damage, occur. As grid stress increases, an outage or failure will likely occur.
Grid stress is highest during hours of peak demand when a lot of electricity is being used. The time of day this occurs is typically in the evenings when air conditioning and heating system use is high. During these times, a home’s energy use skyrockets, resulting in more strain on the local power supply. For homeowners, electricity prices may peak at this time, as some electric utility companies use a model called a Time-of-Use Plan or TOU.
Under TOU billing models, the electricity rate will reflect the grid’s real-time energy usage, with peak hours carrying a higher fee than off-hours. This model can be more expensive, but homeowners with solar panels and energy storage systems (solar batteries) can avoid steeper costs by utilizing their solar batteries during that time.
The weather, and climate change, in general, are some of the most impactful factors in grid stress. These can affect the grid, and the stress upon it, in two major ways: one, through the steady increase in seasonal temperatures, and two, through natural phenomena such as hurricanes, extreme heat waves, and blizzards. According to a study performed by AMP Research Lab, 96% of all power outages in 2020 were caused by weather-related or natural disaster-related factors.
As the summers become hotter, more people across the United States will need to increase the use of their HVAC systems to keep cool. Furthermore, as temperatures increase, particularly in the evenings, valuable system equipment doesn’t have the time to cool down, further increasing the chance of failure. As a result, summer evenings are when grid stress is at its highest, often requiring intervention from local companies in the form of rolling blackouts or Flex Alerts (calls for voluntary electricity conservation).
Major weather events can also result in more serious, large-scale blackouts. Summer heat waves that last multiple days and winter blizzards that severely drop temperatures are some of the most damaging. In 2011 and 2012, major weather events caused nearly $200 billion in damage and over 1,100 deaths. More recently, a mass system failure in Texas occurred due to a failure to winterize essential power grid systems. As the state encountered an abnormally cold winter, the unequipped infrastructure resulted in rolling blackouts, leaving millions without power for two weeks and three days.
While you can’t control things like the weather, broken branches, or your area’s overall electric power usage, there are still steps that you can take to lower your impact on the grid. These practices help your local community by reducing grid stress, saving you money on your electricity bill, and reducing the likelihood of you going without power.
While the electric grid’s infrastructure needs a major overhaul, it’s essential to modern-day life. Without this invaluable network of machines and grid operators, millions of Americans would go without electricity. Many states and utility companies have noticed the grid’s weaknesses and taken steps to remedy them. California, for example, released a recent bill, NEM 3.0, that, while flawed, attempts to reduce grid stress at peak hours by incentivizing solar batteries. Hopefully, with some of the tips presented in this article, you’ll be able to help reduce your local energy grid’s stress levels and save some money on your energy bills to boot.
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