America's Aging Electric Grid Suggests Blackouts Could Spread Nationwide

Texas residents are being asked once again to conserve energy amid a heat wave that has strained the state's grid and threatened rolling blackouts. As some Americans shrug off the issue, experts caution that similar problems could pop up in other parts of the United States if the nation's aging energy infrastructure isn't updated to meet the pace of accelerating climate change and the shift toward electric vehicles.

"Every time there's a problem, people try to figure out how to fix it," Dr. Robert Hebner, the director of the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Electromechanics, told Newsweek. "But the question is, how do we get ahead of these? The question is, who in this country is smart enough to make a billion-dollar investment to get ahead of a weather problem we've never had before?"

Extreme weather has mounted a growing and frequent threat to Texas' independently-operated electrical grid. Last year, those warnings materialized into a living nightmare for millions across the state who were left without power when Texas was battered by a winter storm that triggered the worst infrastructure failure in state history.

In the wake of the energy crisis, many were quick to point out that Texas' grid is isolated from the two major national grids, which prevents the state from importing energy from other states when its own grid falters. But just because the rest of the nation has more reliable backups in place, "100 percent reliability 100 percent of the time is unaffordable," Hebner said.

Energy Grid Rolling Blackouts
Texas isn't the only state that will face rolling blackouts caused by extreme weather, experts warn. Above, massive electrical transmission lines are viewed at a transfer station near the base of San Luis Reservoir on May 31, 2021, near Santa Nella, California. George Rose/Getty Images

The number of power outages over the last six years has more than doubled those in the previous six years, according to a Reuters examination of federal data. As outages become more frequent, extreme weather is also increasingly to blame.

Of the electric disturbances reported to the Department of Energy (DOE) in 2020, weather or natural disasters accounted for 43 percent. Nineteen percent were caused by system operations, 16 percent by vandalism and 22 percent by other factors.

"All these weather events are climate-driven. We've already seen increasing frequency, increasing intensity, so when we think about energy grid infrastructure, we just have to stop thinking about what the historical patterns are and start using predictive analytics to understand what the next 10 years, the next 20 years looks like," Paul Anninos, vice president of environment and natural resources at research firm Abt Associates, told Newsweek.

While much of the focus has been on Texas due to the unique fragility of its energy independence, Anninos said potential blackouts resulting from extreme weather are "not just a Texas thing."

Last year, Louisiana was hit by the second-most damaging hurricane to make landfall in the state since Hurricane Katrina and Florida has experienced an above-average hurricane season for the last six years. Southwest states like California have also faced intense wildfires that have forced states to upgrade their grids.

Jacob Mays, a professor at Cornell University's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said the Northeast could also be in danger of weather-driven blackouts. An extended period of cold could create "problems with the supply of natural gas and limited ability to store natural gas." He said that polar vortexes in chunks of the upper Midwest also pose a risk.

According to a 2022 summer reliability assessment from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), parts of Illinois are among the most vulnerable in the U.S. today. The annual study also found that pretty much everything on a line from Detroit to New Orleans is at high risk of failures of rolling blackouts this summer.

As climate change creates more extreme weather patterns across the U.S., the country is moving increasingly toward the use of electric vehicles. While they still account for a significantly low number of cars on the road, pushes toward green energy and the rising cost of gas are expected to increase electric vehicles' popularity.

As part of his clean energy agenda to mitigate human-caused climate change, President Joe Biden is incentivizing Americans to move to electric vehicles. The White House has set a goal of 50 percent electric vehicle sales by 2023 and announced plans to construct a national network of charging stations along the nation's highways. Additionally, Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law has funneled $3.1 billion to the electric vehicle supply chain to boost domestic manufacturing of batteries.

Americans shifting to electric vehicles in large numbers would put additional strain on America's power grid and potentially cause blackouts if people all charge their cars at the same time, according to The New York Times. States would likely have to build additional power plants—a costly solution upfront—but one that could save consumers money down the line if they don't have to purchase gas.

Rolling blackouts have long been a part of the landscape in which utilities operate. But, as America's adjusting to increased strains on the power grid, the system is aging.

In a 2015 report, the DOE found that 70 percent of transmission lines are more than 25 years old and 60 percent of circuit breakers are more than 30 years old. "The age of these components degrades their ability to withstand physical stresses and can result in higher failure rates," the DOE wrote in its report.

"People are trying to learn from each other, but learning from each other is always hard," Hebner said about the nation's eyes on Texas. "We always assume that we're lucky that what happened to our neighbor didn't happen to us without realizing that it probably will in a little while if we don't be careful."

Electric Vehicles Climate Change
The White House has set a goal of 50 percent electric vehicle sales by 2023. Above, the sun sets behind EV charging stations on June 17, 2022, in Leonia, New Jersey. Kena Betancur/Getty Images

While climate change and other factors pose a substantial threat to the nation's aging electric grid, there are a number of ways to strengthen it. Creating more transmission lines is considered the most popular, according to Hebner, but the U.S. could also utilize electronics to get more capability out of current lines through centralized planning and addressing congestion of renewable energy in interconnection lines.

Americans dispersing more evenly around the country is another solution, since densely populated areas on the coasts require high voltage transmission lines. Having more people in the Midwest would allow the U.S. to move energy loads to where existing wind and solar power infrastructure is.

The fourth, which Hebner calls "a real game changer," is hydrogen, which can store large amounts of energy that can be transported by a pipeline or power line.

In the U.S., it could likely change the energy landscape within a decade. With more than a thousand miles of pipelines already in place, the hydrogen economy in the country is at "a very high level compared to most of the world."

With further federal investments, Hebner said it could "likely change the whole conversation."