America's electrical grid is headed for a total meltdown
Normally, Scott Gann's air conditioning kept his house in Columbus, Ohio, cool during the Midwest's increasingly hot summer days. But in June, as the heat index climbed to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, Gann — along with more than 600,000 Ohioans — suddenly lost power, leaving him sweltering in his home.
"It's just a different kind of experience when you're at your house trying to sleep and it's literally 95 degrees," he told me.
Many who could afford it decided to flee to hotels in unaffected areas, but Gann and the vast majority of affected Columbus residents were stuck in unbearable heat for as many as four days with no way out. "I was not in a position where I was able to go anywhere," Gann said. "So I kind of just had to suffer." Hospitals and nursing homes went dark, nonfunctioning traffic lights resulted in sprawling traffic jams, older residents who relied on medical devices to stay alive were thrown into uncertainty, and heat-related hospital visits spiked.
Gann worked at a Wendy's that already had a broken air conditioner, so there was no relief at work, either. "It's hot as fuck outside, it's hot as fuck in my house, and it's hot as fuck in my work, too," he told me. "So there's no getting away. There's no escaping it for me."
This might have been considered a once-in-a-lifetime event in the past, but mass blackouts are starting to become a more regular feature of modern American life. Power outages have increased 64% from the early 2000s, and weather-related outages — many driven by the worsening climate crisis — have increased 78%. But it's not just nature making our grid shakier: A system that was once largely controlled by localized public entities has been handed over to layers of regional authorities and private companies whose goal is maximizing profits — not reliability. As a result, our electrical system has been plagued by decreasing reliability, lagging maintenance, and soaring costs. All this has left America's energy system woefully unprepared to handle our uncertain future.
Cities across the US are increasingly going dark at the worst moments. A record-breaking blizzard in Buffalo, New York, this winter caused power outages throughout the city, resulting in the deaths of 47 residents. In 2021, a heat wave led to power outages and the deaths of hundreds in the Pacific Northwest. Texas shocked the world when a winter storm shut down power for more than 11 million people for several days in 2021, which resulted in 700 deaths, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis. And on Christmas Eve, record-breaking freezing temperatures caused millions of people in the South — 500,000 just in North Carolina — to lose power when the regional energy giants Duke Energy and Tennessee Valley Authority were forced to do their first-ever preventive rolling blackouts.
And it's becoming clear that these events are linked to the worsening climate crisis. An expansive new report by top climate scientists found that the Pacific Northwest heat wave was 43 times more likely due to human influence on the climate. And a 2019 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the number of days that reached temperatures over 90 degrees in Ohio would likely triple to 30 to 70 days a year by midcentury.
These increasingly extreme temperatures cause outages in a variety of ways. When everyone cranks up their thermostats or blasts their air conditioning, it increases demand for electricity and strains the grid's capacity. Heat also causes power lines to sag, which increases the risk of contact with trees, and frozen temperatures can freeze power-generation equipment. When intense temperatures mix with weather events like storms, a combination of damaged power lines and increased demand often leads to intentional shutdowns to avoid larger regional blackouts. In the case of the Ohio blackout, the regional transmission organization PJM Interconnection ordered the power company AEP to "load shed," or initiate a blackout in some parts of Ohio, to avoid a larger failure. The same thing happened during the Christmas freeze in the South: Power companies initiated blackouts to prevent a worse crisis.
To top it off: All these events have disproportionately affected lower-income and historically marginalized communities. The Columbus outage, for instance, affected low-income neighborhoods — predominately made up of people of color — at far higher rates than medium- and high-income neighborhoods.
While the extreme weather makes outages more likely, what often gets missed in the wake of these tragedies is how a decades-long fight to deregulate and privatize our electrical grid has greatly diminished the likelihood that the large-scale changes needed for a new era of extreme weather will be made.
Out of local hands
As electricity spread out across the country at the dawn of the 20th century, the burgeoning market was dominated by a handful of monopolies: 10 companies owned 75% of the electricity industry by 1930. The grid expanded at such a pace that states struggled to regulate these new power barons, while federal investigations found that the companies engaged in widespread fraud. As a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gradually streamlined the nation's electrical grid as part of the New Deal into publicly owned regional organizations. And local commissions were given clear authority to regulate the system and hold people responsible for failures.
Carl Wood, a former commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, explained that for the next 60 years, "the local utilities controlled all the parts of the system," so "it was very easy for them to predict how much power was going through the high-voltage lines." The grid would rarely get overloaded, he said, "because it was all very controlled, very planned." And since the primary goal of state regulators and local commissions was to deliver electricity to everyone, rather than gain a profit edge, the grid received regular preventive maintenance. "I was on a traveling maintenance crew, and we'd go from power plant to power plant," Wood, who's also a former Utility Workers Union of America organizer, recalled. "Every four years, every power plant was completely overhauled."
But that system of local control over the grid began to erode in 1992 when Congress passed the federal Energy Policy Act. This policy established a wholesale energy market and deregulated power generation so new entities could enter into competition with the existing local utilities to sell the energy produced at their power plants. The government encouraged competition for the new market by incentivizing private utility companies while constricting existing utilities. Then in 1999, the grid was further deregulated when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission called for the voluntary creation of regional transmission organizations across much of the US to "reduce the need for Commission oversight and scrutiny," according to the federal order.
Driven by an ideological conviction after the Cold War that the future belonged to free and deregulated markets, these policies were designed to expand private markets into new frontiers. In reality, the laws created a complicated web of different private and public entities managing a chaotic electrical grid. In Ohio, for instance, residents buy their electricity from a private company like AEP, which generates electricity and distributes it to many parts of the state. AEP falls under the jurisdiction of PUCO, which regulates utilities services in the state. And then, depending on which part of the state someone lives in, the systems that transport high-voltage electricity to customers are coordinated by either Midcontinent ISO or PJM Interconnection, nonprofit organizations that oversee the movement of electricity across several states and operate a competitive wholesale electricity market. And all those groups fall under the regulatory umbrella of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and FERC. This confusing tangle of acronyms isn't unique to Ohio: If you point at a different spot on a US map, there will be a completely different string of equally convoluted private and public entities in charge of delivering electricity.
Advocates for privatizing and deregulating the grid argue that competition increases efficiency, spurs technological innovation, and lowers prices. But instead of lowering costs or improving the grid, these policies caused energy prices in many areas to spike and led to artificial power shortages. Statewide spending on power in California went from $7 billion in 1999 to $28 billion in 2000 and led to the 2000-01 California electricity crisis, in which the energy company Enron created an artificial energy shortage to jack up prices. California's artificial shortage eventually triggered a real crisis as multiple large-scale rolling blackouts gripped the state, affecting millions of residents for years. And reports suggest these profit-seeking schemes have happened in other places, too, though private-energy firms generally deny the claims.
The deregulation also led to poorer maintenance, as companies tried to drive up profits by cutting costs and putting off regular maintenance. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that from 2000 to 2020, the number of major outages increased from fewer than two dozen to 180. And it's gotten worse in recent years: The length of outages in 2020 was double what it was in 2013. A report last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that 70% of transmission and distribution lines were far past the second half of their expected 50-year lifespans. "It's like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg," Peter Kohnstam, the US sales director at Nexans, a global fiber-optic cable company, wrote in a statement calling for a complete grid overhaul.
Instead of streamlining the grid, the current market-based system often results in worse outcomes. For example, in 2012, the power company Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was found to have diverted $100 million that was supposed to be for gas-safety operations to bonuses for executives and stockholders. A report from the California Public Utilities Commission linked the "focus on financial performance" to safety deficiencies that contributed to a 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. Seven years later, PG&E's electrical transmission lines sparked a wildfire that killed 85 people and destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings. But the financial burden of these disasters was placed on customers: PG&E raised its rates to cover the expenses of the disaster. This response isn't uncommon. AEP also raised its rates after the summer Ohio outage.
Tyson Slocum, the director of Public Citizen's energy program, told me that while it's hard to determine based on federal outage data, his observations suggest that "for the most part, the power interruptions and service problems occur in deregulated areas." He concluded: "Replacing those regulatory mandates with market-based incentives has clearly eroded aspects of reliability."
Before deregulation, utilities "were legally required to keep the lights on," Slocum told me. Now, different areas have different laws and requirements, with varying entities to enforce them. Wood told me that when he was a utilities worker in the 1980s, a power outage meant the person in charge of the utilities was getting fired. Today, that's not the case. While regional organizations might use fees to penalize companies for power outages, it's now much harder to pinpoint and hold a person or entity responsible. "You have very scattered jurisdictions — each state or each region kind of has its own set of rules and its own authorities," Wood said. While, in theory, the priority is still to keep the power on, in practice, multiple players shift the blame as the grim state of the grid remains stagnant.
The mess of jurisdictions has also opened the door to corruption. PUCO, the regulatory entity that investigated AEP, was headed until 2020 by Sam Randazzo, who resigned after the FBI raided his home, later discovering that he accepted $4.3 million in bribes from the electric utility company FirstEnergy.
The dynamics of the complex market-based infrastructure of America's grid doesn't just make it harder to avoid blackouts but also complicates the fight for renewable energy — an essential move to avoid the worsening effects of the climate crisis. Slocum said in a statement to FERC that, ultimately, the solution was to "ensure that the public interest — and not transmission owners, incumbent generators or financial traders — determine outcomes of the stakeholder process." But truly prioritizing the needs of the average American would require completely overhauling America's energy system on a scale similar to the FDR-era overhaul. In the meantime, the climate crisis will continue to wreak havoc on an aging grid system that puts profits over reliability.
Taylor Dorrell is is a writer and photographer based in Columbus, Ohio.
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