Weather-related power outages on the rise

As more outages occur because of bad weather, a federal grant may help the grid better contain disruptions.
An emergency vehicle blocks the road where a downed utility pole is nearly falling into the roadway.
A downed utility pole is blocked off after Maine’s December 2023 storm. Photo courtesy Central Maine Power.
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to stay informed of Maine environmental news.

A new analysis shows that more major power outages across Maine, the Northeast and the U.S. are happening as a result of bad weather.

The data from the nonprofit Climate Central shows an aging power grid under pressure as climate change brings more extreme storms in all seasons.

“Major outages are events that affect at least 50,000 customers (homes or businesses) or interrupt service of 300 megawatts or more,” Climate Central says in a release about the analysis, based on federal data from utilities’ required reports of these large outages.

A map detailing power outages by state. Maine has recorded 67.
Graphic via Climate Central

The analysis found that 80% of such events from 2000 to 2023 were weather-related, with a twofold increase from 2014 to 2023 compared to 2000 to 2009.

Severe storms (other than tropical cyclones) and winter weather accounted for nearly three-quarters of these outages. Hurricanes and tropical storms accounted for 14% of outages, though they marked some of the longest-lasting interruptions, Climate Central says.

Maine doesn’t make the top 10 when it comes to states with the most weather-related major outages, according to the Climate Central analysis. The top honor goes to Texas, with 210 major weather-related outages in the past 20+ years.

But a quick breakdown of major outages affecting Maine (either alone or along with other New England states) in this same period shows a striking increase.

A chart showing major power outages in Maine from 2005 to 2023. There was one in 2005, one in 2006, two in 2007, five in 2008, one in 2009, two in 2010, one in 2011, one in 2012, one in 2013, four in 2014, one in 2015, five in 2016, three in 2017, seven in 2018, three in 2019, 12 in 2020, five in 2021, 14 in 2022 and eight in 2023. Just over half occurred from 2020 to 2023.

Maine also ranks high overall for outages of any size and cause. 

Data from the federal Energy Information Administration put Maine in the top five for both the longest and most frequent outages in 2022:

A chart showing the average duration of annual electric power interruptions by select states in 2022.
Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

“A higher average frequency of outages, unlike average duration, tends to be associated more with non-major events,” the EIA says, noting that heavily forested states tend to see the most outages per customer. “Power interruptions resulting from falling tree branches are common, especially because of winter ice and snowstorms that weigh down tree limbs and power lines.”

The federal data that Climate Central analyzed shows a range of non-weather causes for outages nationwide, from vandalism to technical glitches.

A graphic showing the average frequency of annual electric power interruptions by select states in 2022.
Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

As Maine’s largest utility, Central Maine Power has taken its share of criticism for its response to outages in recent years. The storms in January and December, for example, left thousands in the dark and cold for days.

The utility is trying to invest in a more resilient grid. A $30 million federal grant announced last year could help the power system “self-heal” in outages, better containing disruptions before they can spread — part of efforts to “strengthen our state’s electrical system so it can handle increased threats from climate change,” CMP president Joseph Purington said at the time.

Grid modernization takes many forms, from circuit upgrades to better meters and new kinds of time- and technology-based rates, not to mention new poles, wires and tree-trimming approaches.

All of these changes are designed to make it easier to bring more variable, localized renewable energy online, while hardening that more flexible, variable grid to increasing weather extremes.

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Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an independent climate journalist in Camden. She previously reported for Spectrum News Maine in Portland and spent about a decade as a local public radio reporter in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana and New Hampshire. Her award-winning energy and environment reporting has appeared in Energy News Network and Inside Climate News and on NPR, the CBC and podcasts such as Outside/In and Living on Earth. A Maryland native and Boston University graduate, Annie serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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