When frigid weather caused rolling power outages on Christmas Eve in North Carolina, Eliana and David Mundula quickly became concerned for their two-and-a-half-week-old daughter, whom they had brought home days earlier from a neonatal intensive care unit.
“The temperature in the house was dropping,” said Mundula, who lives in Matthews, south of Charlotte. “I got angry”.
But her husband pulled out a small gasoline generator that a neighbor had convinced them to buy a couple of years earlier, allowing them to use a space heater and restart their refrigerator, keeping them running through much of the five-hour blackout.
North of Charlotte, in the town of Cornelius, Gladys Henderson, an 80-year-old former coffee shop worker, had less luck. She didn’t have a generator and resorted to candles, a flashlight, and an old kerosene heater to get through a different recent power outage.
“I lose energy almost all the time,” said Ms. Henderson. “Sometimes it goes off and stays like that.”
Ms. Henderson finds herself on the losing end of a new energy divide that is leaving millions of people dangerously hot and cold.
As climate change increases the severity of heat waves, cold spells, and other extreme weather conditions, power outages are becoming more common. In the 11 years to 2021, there were 986 weather-related power outages in the United States, nearly double the number in the previous 11 years, according to government data analyzed by Climate Central, a nonprofit group of scientists. The average US electric utility customer lost power for nearly eight hours in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration, more than twice as much as in 2013, the first year for which data is available.
Blackouts are becoming so common that generators and other backup power devices are considered essential by some. But many people like Ms. Henderson can’t afford generators or the fuel they run on. Even after strong sales in recent years, Generac, the leading seller of home generators, estimates that less than 6 percent of American homes have a standby generator.
Energy experts warn that power outages will become more common due to extreme weather related to climate change. And those blackouts will affect more people as Americans buy electric heat pumps and battery-powered cars to replace furnaces and vehicles that burn fossil fuels, a shift essential to limit climate change.
“The networks will be more vulnerable,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California and an expert in disaster response. “That increases the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”
The elderly, the frail, and those living in homes that are not well protected or insulated are the most vulnerable, along with those who rely on electrical medical equipment or take medicines that need refrigeration.
Power outages make heat, already a leading cause of preventable death, an even greater threat, said Brian Stone Jr., a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has conducted research to estimate how many people in Atlanta, Detroit and Phoenix would be exposed to extreme temperatures during power outages.
“A simultaneous event where there is a widespread blackout during a heat wave is the deadliest type of climate threat we can imagine,” he said, noting that cooling centers in those cities could house only a fraction of the people at higher risk.
Ashley Ward, a senior policy associate at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, has studied how heat affects North Carolina communities. His investigation indicates that high temperatures cause more preterm deliveries. He said even healthy people who work in high temperatures often suffer from heat-related illnesses, especially if they can’t cool their homes overnight. “A power outage,” she said, “is, in many cases, a catastrophic event.”
The most recent power crisis in North Carolina, the one on Christmas Eve, occurred when the temperature dropped to 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the Charlotte area.
The state’s main utility, Duke Energy, began shutting off power to customers to ensure the grid kept running after power plants failed and customers turned up the heat in their homes. About 500,000 homes, or 15 percent of the company’s customers, lost power in North Carolina and South Carolina, the first time the utility used rolling blackouts. in the Carolinas.
The Mundulas had suffered other weather-related power outages since they moved into their suburban home. After renting generators during previous outages, the couple spent $650 to purchase one in August 2020 to power parts of their four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom home. A chorus of locomotives typically fills your neighborhood when the power fails. “It’s just the hum of the generators,” Mundula said, adding that he never heard generators in the low-income Greensboro neighborhood where he grew up.
The couple has considered larger systems like battery-powered solar, but those options would cost a lot.
Mrs. Henderson, the retired cafeteria worker, lives alone in her three-bedroom house. She relies on her family, friends, and community groups to help maintain her home, which she gets her electricity from a community-owned utility. Frequent power outages are one of several problems in her historically black neighborhood, which also frequently floods.
The developers have offered to buy her house, but Ms. Henderson wants to stay, having lived there for 50 years.
“My problem really is the electrical problem,” Ms. Henderson said. “It’s very scary.”
Duke said he was aware of the risks faced by people like Henderson. The utility tracks recurring outages in vulnerable communities to determine whether to bury power lines to reduce the likelihood of outages. The company is also developing and testing strategies to relieve stress on the grid when power demand exceeds supply. Those approaches include making electric cars send power to the grid and installing smart devices that can turn off appliances, reducing energy use.
“So when an extreme weather event occurs, we have a network that can withstand it or recover quickly,” said Lon Huber, Duke Energy’s senior vice president of customer solutions.
Other network threats are more difficult to protect against.
In early December, someone shot and damaged two Duke substations in Carthage, about 90 miles east of Charlotte, knocking out power to thousands of homes for several days. Emergency services received panic calls from people whose oxygen machines had stopped working, requiring someone to visit those homes and set up pressurized canisters that don’t require power, city fire chief Brian Tyner said.
The boss’s house also has no backup power and he estimates that two-thirds of the houses in the area do not have generators. “We could never justify the price,” he said.
Backup power systems can be as small as portable gasoline generators that can cost $500 or less. Often found on construction sites and campgrounds, these devices can only power a few devices at a time. Whole-house systems powered by propane, natural gas, or diesel can provide power for days as long as fuel is available, but these generators cost around $10,000, including installation, and can cost much more for larger homes.
Solar panels combined with batteries can provide emission-free power, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and typically can’t provide enough to run large appliances and heat pumps for more than a few hours. Those systems are also less reliable during cloudy, rainy, or snowy days when there isn’t enough sunlight to fully recharge the batteries.
Some homeowners who are eager to reduce their carbon emissions, lower their electric bills, and gain independence from the electric grid have combined several power systems, often at considerable cost.
Annie Dudley, a statistician from Chapel Hill, NC, slashed her energy use a few years ago. She installed a geothermal system, which uses the constant temperature of the earth to help heat and cool her home, replacing an older system that came with the home. She later added 35 solar panels to her roof and two Tesla home batteries, which can provide enough power to meet most of her needs, including charging an electric Volkswagen Golf.
“The neighborhood has lost a lot of energy, but I haven’t,” Ms. Dudley said.
He spent about $52,000 on his solar panels and batteries, but $21,600 of that cost was covered by rebates and tax credits. Ms. Dudley estimates that her utility bills are about $2,300 a year lower because of that investment and her geothermal system.
Generation companies believe that increasing electricity use and the threat of outages will keep demand for their products high.
Last year, Generac had $2.8 billion in sales to US homeowners, up 250% from 2017. In recent years, many people have purchased generators to ensure power outages do not disrupt their ability to work from home, said Aaron Jagdfeld, CEO of Generac. , based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Many people also bought generators because of severe weather, including a 2021 extreme heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, and winter storm Uri, which caused days of blackouts in Texas and killed An estimate 246 people.
“People are thinking about this,” said Mr. Jagdfeld, “in the context of the broader changes in the climate and how that may be affecting not only the reliability of power, but also things that need power provides”.