Utility workers address damaged power poles in May 2019, in Vandalia, Ohio, in the aftermath of strong tornadoes that spun through the Midwest.
Utility workers address damaged power poles in May 2019, in Vandalia, Ohio, in the aftermath of strong tornadoes that spun through the Midwest. Credit: © John Minchillo / AP Photo

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Major weather events accounted for more than a third of the time Ohio customers of regulated electric utilities went without power last year, according to an Energy News Network review of data filed with state regulators.

Utility reports filed at the end of March listed 16 calendar days in 2021 with major outage events linked to wind or thunderstorms. All told, more than 900,000 Ohio utility customers lost power during major weather-related outages last year.

Companies say they’re taking steps to prevent outages. Yet some critics question whether utilities are doing enough to prepare the state’s power grid for a warmer and wetter world. It’s unclear how climate change will affect the frequency or intensity of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. However, climate experts predict Ohio will see more days with conditions that often set the stage for storms.

What utilities’ reports show

Utilities file outage reports each year so regulators can judge whether utilities are meeting reliability standards. State regulators can penalize utilities if outages exceed certain limits.

Outages that count toward companies’ performance result from things like equipment failure and damage to infrastructure due to animals, falling tree branches, traffic accidents and so on. Outages from less extensive weather interruptions are also included. Together, those outages generally make up the bulk of electric service interruptions.

When calculating utilities’ performance, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio lets companies exclude major outage events. By definition, major outage events are outliers that last longer and don’t reflect the utilities’ normal performance.

Major weather-related outages account for most long-duration events, sometimes requiring several days to restore power for all customers. On Dec. 11, for example, the state was blasted with wind gusts over 50 mph and at least one tornado, leaving more than a quarter-million customers without power.

Energy News Network added up the customer minutes of service interruptions for major weather-related events noted on 2021 filings by AEP Ohio, AES Ohio, Duke Energy Ohio and FirstEnergy and compared the result to the total customer minutes of service interruptions for all four companies, before any exclusions. Major weather-related outages accounted for roughly 37% of the total.

Storms caused more than 89,000 of FirstEnergy’s CEI customers to lose power over two days last August for an average of nearly 20 hours. The outage lasted roughly three times longer for Bay Village resident Susan Murnane and her husband.

Hot temperatures with no air conditioning or fans made life uncomfortable for the two retired Ohioans. Murnane scrambled to find dry ice to minimize food loss from spoilage. The outage also interrupted other daily activities and caused anxiety because the couple didn’t know when the power would come back.

“For us, it’s an inconvenience and an expense,” Murnane said. But people with less time to make arrangements, no car to travel elsewhere, or fewer resources to replace spoiled food are worse off when the power goes out, she added. “For some people, it’s life and death.”

A changing climate

The threat of more frequent and longer-lasting power outages to a system already affected by extreme weather was a key message from the Fourth National Climate Assessment released in 2018. The United States already had seen a jump in nationwide outage reports during the 2000s, compared to the 1980s and early 1990s, researchers for Climate Central reported in 2014.

The Ohio utility reports don’t provide enough data to show whether power outages due to extreme weather are becoming more common. That’s partly because of the limited number of years available online and also because companies’ maintenance practices and infrastructure investments vary.

The U.S. Department of Energy also collects data on major outages. The data provided the basis for the 2014 Climate Central report, which showed an increase in weather-related outages in Ohio between 2003 and 2012. However, 2012 was an outlier in recent decades, as Superstorm Sandy and a derecho knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers, in some cases for more than a week.

Ohio’s climate is generally warmer and wetter now compared to the three decades from 1981 to 2010. Warmer air holds more moisture — roughly 7% more for each degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), said Bryan Mark, a professor at Ohio State University and Ohio’s state climatologist.

It’s not clear whether a warmer and wetter climate will necessarily lead to more thunderstorms or high winds. Yet those phenomena often occur under conditions that lead to precipitation.

“In a warmer climate when you have more opportunity to heat the atmosphere, you may get in fact more summer thunderstorms,” said Peter Whiting, an environmental scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Thunderstorms form “when you have air that is forced to rise,” such as from a cold front, localized heating, or other conditions that make the air mass unstable.

Warming from climate change also varies by latitude, Mark said. A reduction in the temperature differential between northern latitudes and warmer, sub-tropical regions appears to have altered prevailing winds and may have shifted the storm tracks for mid-latitude regions.

Although research is ongoing, “it seems that we’re able to form deeper and wider convection cells that are more intense and therefore can have more destruction related to them,” Mark said.

What can be done?

Rebecca Mellino, a climate and energy policy expert with the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, is among those who think utilities should do more today to make sure the electric grid is ready for climate change. 

“I would want to see electric utilities plan for what we might have previously considered once-in-a-hundred–years events or considered out of the norm as being more regular,” Mellino said.

Updated rules for utilities’ reliability performance took effect last fall, but they don’t mention climate change. Nonetheless, utilities say they are working to improve reliability in the face of severe weather and other challenges.

FirstEnergy spokesperson Lauren Siburkis said the utility is adding power lines for added flexibility, plus installing automated reclosing equipment. Those devices work like a circuit breaker to shut off power when trouble happens, she said. Routine maintenance also includes tree trimming and vegetation management.

“Smart meters provide information not only to customers but to our crews, so outage areas can be defined and causes found more quickly,” AEP spokesperson Scott Blake said. The company also has been installing automated reclosers and pursuing tree trimming and vegetation management.

In addition, AEP is exploring the possibility of microgrids for places like fire stations and community shelters. “Outage restoration processes also prioritize restoring power to critical facilities and completing work that will restore power to the greatest number of customers,” Blake said.

Sturdier electric poles are part of AES Ohio’s strategy, its March 31 outage report said. The company also is adding automated reclosers and taking a more proactive approach to replacing cutouts and underground primary cables.

Funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act could potentially help Ohio update its grid and make its electricity system more reliable. But critics want resilience efforts to focus on generation, too.

“We’re already behind the eight ball in planning what the electricity sector is going to look like in a new world,” said Sam Gomberg, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. In his view, “every ton of carbon matters at this point.”

Ohio’s proposed Energy Jobs and Justice Act, HB 429, calls for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from electricity by 2030, with a 100% target by 2050. So, utilities would have to take some action on climate change. And the Public Utilities Commission would review utilities’ carbon reduction plans every two years.

The bill was referred to the House Public Utilities Committee in October, and Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland Heights, became a primary sponsor with Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, in March. Hearings on the bill have not yet been scheduled.

“The cost to adapt to climate change is actually going to be more expensive than stopping the use of fossil fuels and transitioning to cleaner sources now,” said Miranda Leppla, who heads Case Western Reserve University’s Environmental Law Clinic.

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.