Data: June AEP outage affected lower-income areas at higher rate
A snapshot of data from the AEP power outages in mid-June that affected hundreds of thousands of Columbus residents revealed a higher percentage of customers affected in lower-income zip codes.
On June 13 and 14, severe storms swept through Ohio and downed power transmission lines across the state. Though the storms lasted mere hours, impacts stretched on for days, primarily manifesting in widespread power outages for American Electric Power customers throughout central Ohio. With power outages in hundreds of thousands of Columbus homes, many residents endured the following 90-degree days without air conditioning and other power-dependent services.
Hot and without electricity, thousands of Columbus residents began questioning AEP. Their concerns were echoed by nine Ohio lawmakers in a June 16 letter sent to Marc Reitter, President of AEP Ohio.
“How were blacked out neighborhoods chosen?,” the authors of the letter asked. “Is there more demand in these communities? Have there been fewer upgrades to these areas of the grid?”
Other inquiries related to a lack of communication between AEP and affected customers as well as the timeline of the emergency forced outages.
On June 21, Gov. Mike DeWine released a statement containing similar questions and expressing support for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s review of the post June 13 outages.
PUCO will publicly present its review on July 13, one month after the storms. The review is set to explore “why and where the outages occurred, the impact on vulnerable populations, communication efforts, the decision-making surrounding the forced outages, the timeline of events, and what can be done to better protect or assist consumers in the future,” according to a news release from the commission.
Before PUCO’s review reveals further insights into the outages, we wanted to take a deeper look into the data we have and what we know so far.
The map below shows median household incomes in Columbus zip codes based on Census data from 2020, and the percentages of AEP customers without power on June 15 at 2:30 p.m., according to AEP’s outage dashboard.
Note: If viewing the map on mobile is difficult, try making it full screen by clicking the icon with two arrows in the top left corner.
Here’s what the data revealed
The June 13 storms resulted in outages that varied in length and location. AEP Ohio outage statistics referenced in the map and throughout the article were collected during the approximate peak of Central Ohio outages, on June 15 at 2:30 p.m. As a note, some zip codes may be missing because of the changing nature of the data over time.
Zip codes primarily in the center of Columbus with lower median household incomes saw higher percentages of their populations impacted by AEP’s power outages, according to the map. Each color represents an income bracket and the transparency of the colors indicate the number of AEP customers without power on June 15 – the more opaque the area, the more people impacted by outages within it. Each zip code’s specific statistics can be viewed by clicking on the tract of land, or by using the search bar in the top right part of the map.
On June 15, the three Columbus zip codes with the highest percentage of AEP customers without power were 43202 (99%), 43210 (92%) and 43211 (80%). The median household incomes within those neighborhoods are $56,332, $19,107 and $28,610, respectively. Many of the areas with 80% or more customers without power had a median income in the middle to lower range.
Conversely, the zip code areas with less than 1% of AEP customers impacted by outages had a median household income in the middle to upper range.
AEP’s outage data can be presented in numerous ways. We explored the information through maps, charts and tables, trying to comprehensively understand who was impacted by the outages.
By breaking the median household incomes of 29 Columbus zip codes into four ranges and averaging the percentages of AEP customers without power in them, a general pattern appears. As household incomes increase, the percentages of AEP customers without power decrease. For example, 34% of AEP customers whose median household income is in the lowest range were without power while just 1% of the highest income group had no electricity. The use of percentages in this comparison is important because it provides a proportional metric for differently sized populations.
AEP said that the disparate outages were not intentional; outage locations “were caused by the grid conditions created by the storms and hot weather.”
AEP claims outages were necessary to prevent worse blackouts
Different zip codes experienced disparate levels of outages, but AEP Ohio claims the outages were not intentionally targeting lower-income neighborhoods. With some transmission lines not functioning, the undamaged lines became overloaded by electricity demand. Citing the strain, AEP Ohio said that “power had to be taken off the overloaded transmission lines to prevent catastrophic failure of the larger grid.” The emergency forced outages left more than 150,000 central Ohioans without power for several days.
The locations and lengths of outages were performed “to relieve overloading on very specific transmission lines damaged by Monday’s storm systems,” according to AEP. However, the outages impacted much larger percentages of lower income zip codes than similarly-sized higher-income zip codes.
During the power outage, temperatures were recorded to reach the low nineties, according to the National Weather Service. Hundreds of thousands of AEP customers in central Ohio were without air conditioning during that period of extreme heat. It was not until midafternoon on June 16 that most central Ohioans had their power restored, according to AEP Ohio.
Effects of high temperatures were exacerbated by the widespread power outages. Without electricity in many central Ohioans’ homes, there was also no immediate respite from the heat. Discomfort, dehydration, heat stroke, and even death can be caused by extremely high temperatures, according to the CDC.
Eleven community cooling centers were promoted by AEP Ohio during the power outages.
Impacted AEP customers also dealt with spoiled food, disrupted communications and challenges using medical devices. For low-income residents, those losses can have an even deeper impact.
AEP Ohio pledged $1 million to assist customers in Franklin County who were impacted by the outages. The electric company faced backlash on social media for the decision. Customers observed that if every impacted resident filed a claim, each would receive approximately $5.
For more information and to view additional maps and graphics, check out Matter's full story here