Frozen out: Minorities suffered four times more power outages in Texas blackouts

Source: press release, 14 April 2021

Map of the Houston, Texas, Metropolitan Statistical Area showing minority status and blackout share by population during the winter storms of 14-18 February 2021 – each dot represents 100 people (illustration: e-GUIDE)
Map of the Houston, Texas, Metropolitan Statistical Area showing minority status and blackout share by population during the winter storms of 14-18 February 2021 – each dot represents 100 people (illustration: e-GUIDE)

Areas with a high share of minority population were four times more likely to have suffered a power outage during the recent Texas blackout compared to predominantly white areas, reveals new analysis published by the Electricity Growth and Use in Developing Economies (e-GUIDE) Initiative. The analysis was conducted after the events of February when a severe winter storm knocked many parts of Texas’ power grid offline for several days, leaving over 4.5 million people in the cold and dark.

The Initiative, a grantee of The Rockefeller Foundation, used satellite data of night-time lights to track changes in illumination before, during, and after the storm to indicate where blackouts had occurred. The data was then mapped to census block groups (a unit of area used as part of the U.S. census) and correlated to US census demographic data throughout Texas. The highly detailed analysis reveals a striking correlation between racial status where blocks with a higher proportion of minorities were more likely to experience a power outage:

  • Predominantly white areas had an 11% chance of suffering an outage compared to a 47% chance in high minority share areas.
  • Income status of areas does not correlate strongly with experiencing increased or decreased blackouts.
  • Presence of critical facilities – such as hospitals, police and fire stations, and water and wastewater treatment facilities – make blackouts less likely, but only by a few percentage points.

e-GUIDE is a collaboration between UMass Amherst, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Colorado School of Mines to develop tools and transform the approaches used for the planning and operation of electricity infrastructure. The Initiative partners with electricity service companies in low- and middle-income countries, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of the population lacks access to electricity. This work was completed in collaboration with Juan Pablo Carvallo, Principal Scientific Engineering Associate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Jay Taneja of UMass Amherst’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Initiative lead says, “Though the analysis does not tell us why differences in blackouts arise, the end result, that already-vulnerable populations endure more widespread blackouts, is tragic and unacceptable.”

“While innovative datasets using satellite imagery can highlight this inequity, a failure of this magnitude is a reminder that investment in infrastructure reflects investment in communities and people. Regulators and policymakers should strive to track blackout events at the most granular level possible to identify systemic biases and develop sound policy to eliminate them and limit impacts on vulnerable communities,” Taneja continues.

Ashvin Dayal, Senior Vice President of Power & Climate at The Rockefeller Foundation, says, “Access to reliable electricity is an essential component for modernity and economic prosperity and the Texas outage illuminated the severity of living without power. Yet while Texas was able to rebound from disaster, there are nearly one billion people around the world that continue to live without power as part of their everyday lives.”

“Investing in energy infrastructure, particularly distributed renewable energy, is the most impactful way to enhance prosperity of poorer communities and protect them from future hardship. We must come together to address these systemic inequalities and provide affordable access to reliable and sustainable electricity for everyone,” Dayal adds.