Why Is the Power Out So Much in America?

Sam Reeves, MVC Writer

In Japan, the average electricity consumer spends 16 minutes per year with the power out. In Western European countries, this number is about 58. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that since 2013, the average American has spent between 106 and 118 minutes per year in a blackout. 

The U.S. Department of Energy lists dozens of causes for blackouts, like vandalism, fuel shortage, system failure, demand shocks, operator error, and weather. A single blackout is typically caused by more than one. Texas’ February 2021 energy crisis, for example, was caused by both an extreme weather event causing demand shock in the state’s isolated grid, which was not prepared to operate in the extreme cold temperatures that the February 2021 blizzard brought; a hat trick of failures and problems, each influencing and worsening one another. 

While an isolated, well-documented blackout is somewhat straightforward to find the cause of, discrepancies in blackout trends between countries are as complex as each country’s electrical grids. Weather is the intuition’s first answer. It is true that America’s grid must contend with tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, and wildfires. According to an article in the Economist, weather incidents were responsible for 43% of America’s blackouts in 2020. 

However, this number is dishonest. Weather causes more blackouts in America not because America has worse weather, but because America has a worse grid. The Texas crisis is an example of this. The February 2021 blizzard would have been another Tuesday for the New England grid, but crippled the Texan grid. Being in a famously cold environment, New England built its grid in anticipation of blizzards. Texas did not. Texan energy planners did not see the weather preparedness and surge capacity regulations imposed by New England planners as necessary precautions, but rather as pointless bureaucratic overhead. While the consequences of this lack of preparedness have up to this point been illustrated through dispassionate numbers like average per capita time in blackouts, it may be important to remember that last February alone it was responsible for 210 dead Texans.

In miniature, these differences between the Texas and New England grids are similar to the differences between America’s grid and Japan’s. The construction of America’s electrical grid began gaining steam in the 1950s. By now, much of the grid’s physical infrastructure is beginning to show age. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 70% of large power transformers and transmission lines are at least 25 years old. The same data has 60% of circuit breakers at 30 years or older. 

Modern American energy regulators are aware of the aging infrastructure, but do not have the funding or popular support to replace it. Japanese regulators, on the other hand, have the state capacity to keep routine maintenance of their grid. 

Americans have a habit of voting for politicians who promise to lower taxes, and Japanese people have a habit of voting for politicians who promise to prevent a repeat of the Fukushima disaster. This, not weather, is the difference between a grid that blacks out for 16 minutes per year and one that blacks out for 116 minutes per year.