May 18, 2024

Power Outages Disproportionately Affecting Poor Communities: Study Finds Longer Recovery Times

A recent study conducted by researchers revealed that when it comes to power outages caused by severe storms, it is the socioeconomically disadvantaged communities that suffer the longest recovery times. The study analyzed data from over 15 million consumers across 588 counties in the United States who experienced power outages due to hurricanes between January 2017 and October 2020. The findings clearly showed that poorer communities had to wait longer for their power to be restored.

The study employed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index to measure the socioeconomic status of communities. It was found that a 1-decile drop in socioeconomic status was associated with a 6.1% longer outage on average. This translates to an additional waiting time of around 170 minutes for power restoration, sometimes even longer.

One of the reasons for this disparity can be traced back to the recovery policies set by utilities. Often, these policies prioritize the restoration of critical infrastructure first, followed by large commercial and industrial customers. Only then do they attempt to reconnect as many households as possible in the shortest time frame. While this approach may seem fair in theory, it inadvertently leads to vulnerable communities waiting longer for their electricity to be restored. This could be due to their distance from critical infrastructure or the fact that they are predominantly located in older neighborhoods where power infrastructure requires more extensive repairs.

The consequences of these prolonged power outages can be severe for households that are already at greater risk from severe weather events. This includes potential food spoilage due to lack of refrigeration, limited access to running water, and delays in repairing damages, such as drying out waterlogged areas to prevent mold growth. Furthermore, these communities are often the least likely to have insurance or resources to aid in recovery.

The study covered 108 service regions, including investor-owned utilities, cooperatives, and public utilities. The disproportional impact on poorer communities was not specific to any particular storm, region, or utility. Additionally, there was no correlation found with race, ethnicity, or housing type. Only the average socioeconomic level stood out as a contributing factor.

To address this issue and improve power recovery times for all communities, policymakers and utilities need to reassess their power restoration practices and infrastructure maintenance. This may involve replacing aging utility poles and implementing tree-trimming programs with the specific needs of disadvantaged communities in mind.

Furthermore, power providers already possess detailed data on power usage and grid performance within their service regions. They can utilize this information to experiment with alternative recovery routines that take into account the vulnerability of their customers, without significantly impacting the overall recovery duration.

For regions that are likely to experience prolonged outages due to their geographical locations or aging energy infrastructure, utilities and policymakers can adopt proactive measures to ensure that households are well-prepared to evacuate or have access to backup power sources. The U.S. Department of Energy has already made strides in this regard, announcing plans to invest in resilience hubs and microgrids that can provide localized power to key buildings within communities when the wider grid goes down. Several of these hubs are being planned in or near disadvantaged communities in Louisiana, utilizing solar power and large-scale batteries.

In addition, policymakers and utilities can make investments in broader energy infrastructure and renewable energy in these vulnerable communities. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Justice40 program stipulates that 40% of the benefits from federal energy, transportation, and housing investments should be directed towards disadvantaged communities. This initiative aims to provide assistance to residents who are most in need of support.

As severe weather events become more frequent with rising global temperatures, it is essential to implement better planning and approaches that ensure low-income residents are not left in the dark. Efforts to mitigate the impact of power outages on socioeconomically vulnerable communities are crucial for creating a more equitable and resilient society.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it