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What causes an electricity shortage?

By Tiffany Reynolds

The electricity that powers our homes can sometimes be taken for granted. You pay the electric bill, and everything inside your home is powered. This is possible, of course, thanks to electrical power plants generating electricity from fuel or other sources and transmitting that power across a vast electricity grid to your community and finally to your home. This is happening, at least, when everything is working properly.

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4 causes of electricity shortages

You know how electricity is generated and transmitted. But what causes a shortage of electricity? The following sections will explain how electricity shortages can happen, from extreme temperatures and natural disasters to car accidents and an overload of demand.

1. Extreme heat or extremely low temperatures

Either temperature extreme causes a degree of risk of outages, whether it’s the hottest temperature in a historic heat wave or a historically cold temperature in the middle of the winter. In each case, the population is using a vast amount of energy to warm or cool their homes, and power plants struggle to match their energy supply with the energy demand.

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Power grids have been stressed in each circumstance recently. The Texas electricity shortage in 2022 was possibly most keenly felt in the winter, when some local communities  went without power during a winter storm, and many people went without heat. By summer, when some parts of the state saw some of the  hottest temperatures in modern times, the power plants were just as strained from people trying to stay cool.

Electric service in the summer can also go down thanks to the nature of power transmission. As power lines transmit electricity, they give off a lot of heat. As the temperature of the air goes up, the  line gets hot and starts to droop, lowering capacity and voltage.

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2. Unexpected acts from Mother Nature

Natural disasters can negatively  affect the power grid by knocking out the power, causing prolonged outages. These natural disasters could be tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes. There are various ways each of these forces of Mother Nature can interfere with power distribution and cause an interruption of electrical service.

In 2021, Hurricane Nicholas  knocked out the power in Houston as it dumped a foot of rain on the city. More than 440,000 residents were without power from that storm. Winds of 75 miles per hour blew trees and branches, which fell on power lines, cutting off the power. Powerful tornadoes, such as the one that hit Dallas in 2019, can also wreak havoc on electrical power transmission. That tornado  shut off the power of more than 100,000 customers. Earthquakes can also  shut down power plants.

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3. Car accidents

Power is  transmitted across power lines from the generating station to transmission and distribution substations and finally to distribution lines in residential communities and commercial areas. When transmitted from the generating station, the power is being pushed at hundreds of kilovolts through elevated lines held up by large, sturdy structures called tube towers, lattice towers, or pylons.

By the time the power is transformed down to smaller voltages, the lines are held up by wooden poles. Wood, being an insulator, makes for a safe material to hold up power lines and can help reduce power arcs from lightning strikes. While using wood has its pros, the cons include the fact that the wood eventually rots, making the poles weak, and cars can crash into them, knocking down the power line and cutting off local power.

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4. Increased demand for power

Whenever there is an overall demand for electrical energy that surpasses the capacity and supply, the system is strained as it struggles to meet the demand. If the demand increases to the breaking point, there is an overload, and the power plant can’t keep up, then the power goes out. Even worse, when the power goes out at one point in the system, the power outages can spread to other parts of the grid.

How can renewable resources help?

Using renewable sources of energy can help prevent electricity shortages. Some  renewable sources include wind power, solar power — thermal or photovoltaic — biomass, low-impact hydroelectricity, wave power, tidal power, and biogas — such as wastewater treatment gas and landfill gas, which is turned into energy.

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Decreased reliance on the electric grid and a drive for energy independence

On the individual level, a homeowner with solar panels can reduce their reliance on the local electric grid. Power is harvested from the sun’s rays as the photovoltaic panels absorb photons. The sunlight hitting the cells creates an electrical field, which then flows to a solar inverter that converts the DC power into AC power. This AC power can then be used in your home, powering appliances, lights, and electrical outlets, just like the electricity that comes from a power plant.

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On a community level, local renewable energy sources, such as wind power stations, can help make local areas more independent. On a state and national level, renewable energy can help  reduce our dependence on foreign fuel imports. When there are more renewable options, people may not be required to  conserve energy at a preferred time to help protect the power grid and prevent a blackout.

Lower energy demand on the grid

Using local renewable energy sources helps diversify the energy supply. It also helps ease the strain on the electrical distribution grids that are transmitting power from coal, nuclear, and other types of power plants, which may be running at full capacity to try to keep up with the high demand. Diversifying energy sources helps lower the demand on the grid and provides a multitude of sources for the energy supply.

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In 2016, Texas generated more than 74 gigawatts of solar power. That year, solar added more capacity than any other energy source. This includes coal, and solar became the largest source of new electricity generation capacity. When excess solar power is fed back into the system, overall peak demand charges are reduced.

The road toward better energy decisions

What causes electricity shortages? There are numerous potential causes, from disasters to accidents and overly high demand. There is still a long road to go before energy storage, energy usage, and supply-and-demand balances are optimized. An increase in solar panel usage and many other types of renewable energy could help supplement the electricity supply. This would reduce demand on the grid and reduce our dependence on imports. Renewable resources can also reduce the reliance on aging electric grids and help the country gain energy independence.

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One of the best energy decisions is finding the best rates so you’re not overpaying on your utility bills. To find the most affordable rates, you’ll want to use a site like Power Wizard. Our do-it-yourself tool checks hundreds of electricity plans in mere seconds to find the best plan for you.

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Visit Power Wizard’s how-it-works page to see how easy it is to use the DIY shopping tool. Power Wizard can help match you with the providers and plans that are right for your home.

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