Weekly Wonder: Over 24 million people affected by energy disturbances in 2020

black electric post on snow covered ground
Photo by Steffen Lemmerzahl/Unsplash

By Stella Lorence
Boston University News Service

As snowstorms riddle large portions of the country, freezing cold, layers of snow and dangerous driving conditions have had a particular impact on Texas. 

Despite Texas’ reputation as a literal powerhouse, being the nation’s top producer of oil and natural gas, the storm brought extended power outages across the state. While power is slowly being restored to the millions of residents who suffered without it during frigid temperatures, officials and citizens alike are raising questions about the state’s energy infrastructure. 

The solution? Ask Californians to conserve power in order to ease the stress on the grid in Texas and the midwest. Many find this request from Texas Senator Ted Cruz to be ironic, as he previously criticized California’s energy policy.

Severe outages have become more common in the last two years, according to federal data. Over 24 million people were affected by “major disturbances and unusual occurrences” in their electric power last year, according to data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Throughout the year, there were 210 different occurrences, a 30% increase from 2019.  In 2020, over half of the disturbances were reported as a loss of power to 50,000 people or more; there was a 13% increase from 2019 in the total number of people affected.

In total, the wattage lost last year was enough to power 8605 homes for one year or 104,498 homes per month. 

The number of “energy disturbances and unusual occurrences” as measured by the U.S. Energy Information Administration peaked in August of last year.

Although there were more disturbances, the average duration declined by 14 hours between 2019 to 2020. The longest disturbance in 2020 affected five Oklahoma counties in October, leaving at least 50,000 people without power for almost two weeks due to severe weather. In total, roughly 447,000 people were affected by that outage in some way.

In 2020, Pacific Gas & Electric, which services a large portion of California, had more disturbances than any other utility or power pool. Most of those occurred in August – which had the most occurrences overall with nearly 30% of the total – when the state was facing some of the most destructive wildfires in its history.  

Texas, which operates its own electric grid separate from the rest of the country, experienced 30 disturbances last year across 17 different utilities and power pools. American Electric Power Texas, which reported a peak of 468,000 customers without power on Tuesday morning, experienced just three disturbances last year.

As of Thursday, power had been restored to all but 124,000 customers, according to AEPTexas’s website. State leaders are assessing what went wrong as their state weathered this week’s snow. According to The Weather Channel, at least 20 deaths are being attributed to the storm in Texas, in addition to another 18 in 11 other states.

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