A powerful weather system is pummeling New England with rain and snow, leaving tens of thousands of New Englanders without power.
It’s something that could happen more frequently thanks to climate change, unless the region takes serious steps to prepare.
More than 18,000 people across Massachusetts — including more than half of the towns of Warwick, Ashby, Hubbardston, and New Salem — were experiencing outages Monday afternoon, according to the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Tens of thousands of customers are also experiencing outages in New Hampshire and Maine.
The disruptions come just one month after some 170,000 customers in New England lost power on Christmas Eve during a winter storm.
Isolated to scattered power outages where the most snow was on the trees to start this event. A lot of weight on the branches. pic.twitter.com/0IMBr4EadS— Chris Lambert (@clamberton7) January 23, 2023
Extreme weather, becoming more common due to climate change, is a major problem for the grid. In fact, between 2000 and 2021, about 83 percent of reported major outages in the United States were attributed to weather events, according to a September analysis from the independent research organization Climate Central.
During storms, low temperatures can push up demand for fuel as people stay in their homes, while putting stress on power plants. But the even bigger problem is that they can cause disruptions at the neighborhood level, said Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy at the environmental nonprofit Acadia Center.
“Power interruptions are overwhelmingly caused by local disruptions like tree branches, ice, wind, or animals knocking out local distribution power lines,” she said.
In fact, in the forested northeast, 90 percent of outages during storms is caused by fallen trees, an Eversource spokeswoman said.
On a warming planet, electricity disruptions are happening more frequently. Storms are becoming stronger and more frequent as the planet heats up, since weather systems pick up speed when they move over warm water. Because warmer air can hold more moisture, climate change can also make storms wetter. And it can also change the quality of precipitation, said Boyd — for instance by bringing heavy, icy rain instead of fluffy snow — increasing the chance of electricity disruption.
Other extreme weather events, including floods, heat waves, and cold snaps, are also becoming worse amid the climate crisis. The toll on the grid is already observable — the September Climate Central report found that from 2011 to 2021, the country saw 78 percent more weather-related power outages than it did between 2000 and 2010.
Aging and poorly maintained infrastructure is more vulnerable to outages.
“It’s the case across the region as it is across the country that a lot of our infrastructure is on the older side or out of date, and needing to be replaced,” Mireille Bejjani, co-director of climate advocacy organization Slingshot and facilitator of Fix the Grid, a New England campaign which is pushing for a more “renewable, transparent and democratic” electric grid.
Boyd said there are steps the region can take to improve its grid resilience, including installing sensors to allow for real-time troubleshooting, and “putting in more redundancy” so that power can be re-routed and restored as quickly as possible during disruptions.
Otto J. Lynch, president of the overhead power line design software company Power Line Systems and spokesperson for the American Society of Civil Engineers, said improving national design standards for distribution lines would also go a long way. Specifically, distribution power lines, which are for shorter distances and lower voltage electricity transportation, should be required to meet the same standards as transmission power lines, which are meant for long-distance electricity transportation, he said.
Bejjani said another good step would be putting more distributed energy resources onto the grid, like rooftop solar paired with battery storage.
“We should have more electricity that’s being generated closer where it’s being used, so that the need to get it from one place to another isn’t as much of a vulnerability,” she said. Adding more distributed renewable energy would also reduce the region’s carbon emissions, making it a smaller contributor to the extreme weather that threatens grid resilience.
Some grid resilience efforts are are already underway.
”We continue to ensure the grid is ready to meet an increase in demand from electrification, while also making significant investments that enable our system to integrate clean energy resources and better withstand the increasingly extreme weather events and other issues associated with climate change,” the Eversource spokeswoman said in an email statement.
National Grid and Eversource both have plans to make transmission and distribution infrastructure more stable, and both utilities also cut down trees at high risk of falling onto power lines.
National Grid has also launched efforts it says would improve access to distributed solar. Clean energy advocates note, though, that the utility has lobbied against other efforts to promote distributed renewable energy in New England.
Outages aren’t just an inconvenience, they can also be dangerous. They can make it impossible to charge respiratory aids, cause vital medicine and food to go bad without refrigeration, and make it difficult to communicate about extreme weather.
“There’s so many things that electricity goes into and that we don’t think about until it’s not there,” said Bejjani. “Resilience is essential.”
Dharna Noor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.