When cold weather caused rolling Christmas Eve power outages in North Carolina, Eliana and David Mundula quickly became concerned about their 2.5-week-old daughter, who they had brought home from the NICU a few days earlier.
“The temperature in the house is dropping,” said Ms. Mundura, who lives in Matthews, south of Charlotte. “I am angry.”
But her husband pulled out a small gasoline generator that neighbors had convinced them to buy a few years ago, allowing them to use a portable heater and restarting the refrigerator to keep them running for most of the five-hour outage.
In the town of Cornelius, north of Charlotte, former cafeteria worker Gladys Henderson, 80, wasn’t so lucky. She doesn’t have a generator and relies on candles, flashlights and an old kerosene heater to get through a recent outage of a different kind.
“I was pretty much without power all the time,” Ms Henderson said. “Sometimes it goes off and stays off.”
Ms Henderson is at the losing end of a new energy divide that is exposing millions of people to dangerous heat and cold.
Power outages are becoming more common as climate change intensifies the severity of heat waves, cold snaps and other extreme weather. The United States has seen 986 weather-related power outages in the 11 years through 2021, nearly double the number in the previous 11 years, according to government data analyzed by the Climate Center, a nonprofit group of scientists. U.S. electric utility customers will experience an average power outage of nearly eight hours in 2021, more than double the amount in 2013, the earliest year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Power outages have become so common that some people consider generators and other backup power equipment essential. But many like Ms Henderson cannot afford generators or the fuel they run on. Even after strong sales in recent years, Generac, a major seller of home generators, estimates that fewer than 6 percent of U.S. households have backup generators.
Power outages will become more common due to extreme weather linked to climate change, energy experts have warned. These outages will hurt more people as Americans buy electric heat pumps and battery-powered cars to replace fossil fuel-burning furnaces and vehicles — a shift necessary to limit climate change.
“The grid will be more vulnerable,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on disaster response. “This further exacerbates the divide between rich and poor.”
The elderly, infirm and those who live in homes that are not well protected or insulated, and those who rely on powered medical equipment or take medications that require refrigeration are the most vulnerable.
Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said power outages generate heat, already a leading cause of avoidable deaths, and an even bigger threat. He’s done research estimating how many people in Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix will be exposed to extreme temperatures during a power outage.
“The combination of widespread power outages during heat waves is the deadliest type of climate threat we can imagine,” he said, noting that cooling centers in these cities can only accommodate a fraction of the people most at risk.
Ashley Ward, senior policy associate at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, studies how heat affects North Carolina communities.she Research showed that higher temperatures lead to more premature births. Even healthy people who work in the heat often suffer from heat-related illnesses, especially if they can’t cool their homes overnight, she said. “A power outage,” she said, “is a catastrophic event in many cases.”
The most recent power crisis in North Carolina came on Christmas Eve, when temperatures dropped to 9 degrees in the Charlotte area.
The state’s main utility, Duke Energy, began cutting power to customers to ensure the grid continued to operate after power plants failed and customers heated their homes.About 500,000 homes, or 15 percent of the company’s customers, were without power in North and South Carolina, the first time the utility has used rolling blackouts in the carolina.
The Munduras have experienced other weather-related outages since moving into their suburban home. After renting generators during previous outages, the couple spent $650 on one in August 2020 to keep part of their four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bedroom home powered. When the power goes out, the chorus of engines usually fills their neighbours. “It was just the hum of a generator,” Ms. Mundura said, adding that she had never heard a generator in the low-income Greensboro neighborhood where she grew up.
The couple considered larger systems, such as solar with batteries, but those options would cost a lot.
Ms Henderson, a retired canteen worker, lives alone in her three-bedroom house. She relies on family, friends and community groups to help her maintain the house, which gets its electricity from a community-owned utility company. Frequent power outages are one of several problems in her historic African-American neighborhood, which also experiences frequent flooding.
The developer offered to buy her home, but Ms Henderson wanted to keep it where she had lived for 50 years.
“My problem was really electrical,” Ms Henderson said. “It’s scary.”
Duke University said it was aware of the risks faced by people like Ms. Henderson. The company tracks repeated power outages in vulnerable communities to determine whether power lines should be buried to reduce the chance of outages. The company is also developing and testing strategies to relieve stress on the grid when energy is in short supply. These include having electric vehicles feed power into the grid and installing smart devices that can switch off appliances, thereby reducing energy use.
“So when extreme weather events hit, we have a grid that can withstand or recover quickly,” said Lon Huber, Duke Energy’s senior vice president of customer solutions.
Other threats to the grid are harder to defend against.
In early December, gunfire damaged two Duke substations in Carthage, about 90 miles east of Charlotte, leaving thousands of homes without power for days. The town’s fire chief, Brian Tyner, said emergency services received panic calls from people whose oxygen concentrators stopped working, asking for someone to visit the homes and install pressurized tanks that don’t require power.
The chief also has no backup power at his home, and he estimates that two-thirds of homes in the area don’t have generators. “We’ll never be able to justify the price,” he said.
Backup power systems can be as small as a portable gasoline generator costing no more than $500. Often found on construction sites and campgrounds, these devices can only power a few devices at a time. Whole home systems fueled by propane, natural gas, or diesel can provide power for days as long as fuel is available, but these generators start at about $10,000, including installation, and can be much more expensive for larger homes many.
Solar panels paired with batteries can provide emission-free electricity, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and often don’t provide enough power to run large appliances and heat pumps for more than a few hours. These systems are also less reliable on cloudy, rainy or snowy days when there is not enough sunlight to fully charge the battery.
Some homeowners, eager to reduce their carbon emissions, lower their electricity bills and move off the grid, have combined energy systems, often at high cost.
Annie Dudley, a statistician from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, cut back on her energy consumption a few years ago. She installed a geothermal system, which uses the steady temperature of the earth to help heat and cool her home, replacing the aging system that came with the house. She later installed 35 solar panels and two Tesla home batteries on the roof, providing enough power for most of her needs, including charging an electric Volkswagen Golf.
“There’s been a lot of power outages in this community, but I haven’t,” Ms. Dudley said.
She spent about $52,000 on solar panels and batteries, but paid for $21,600 of that through rebates and tax credits. Ms. Dudley estimates her utility bills have been reduced by about $2,300 a year because of the investment and her geothermal system.
Power generation companies believe that growing electricity consumption and the threat of blackouts will keep demand for their products high.
Last year, Generac generated $2.8 billion in sales to U.S. homeowners, up 250% from 2017. In recent years, many people have bought generators to ensure power outages won’t affect their ability to work from home, said Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO of Generac, based in Waukeshire, Wisconsin.Many also bought generators because of severe weather, including an extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021, and winter storm Uri, which left Texas without power for days and killed people estimate 246 people.
“People are thinking about that,” Mr Jagdfeld said, “in the wider context of climate change and how that might affect not just the reliability of electricity, but what they need electricity to deliver.”