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Taneja Finds Minorities Four Times as Likely to Suffer Power Outages in Texas Blackouts

Jay Taneja

Jay Taneja

A new analysis published by the Electricity Growth and Use in Developing Economies (e-GUIDE) Initiative, led by Assistant Professor Jay Taneja of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, found that areas with a high minority population were four times as likely to experience power outages than did predominantly white areas during February’s blackouts in Texas. The analysis was completed in collaboration with Zeal Shah, a Ph.D. student in Taneja’s STIMA Lab in the UMass ECE department, along with researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Colorado School of Mines. See Boston Herald, PR Newswire, and News Office release.

As Taneja said, “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.”

According to the Boston Herald story, the e-GUIDE analysis was conducted after the events of February, when a severe winter storm knocked many parts of the Texas power grid offline for several days, leaving more than 4.5-million people in the cold and dark.

The e-GUIDE Initiative, which is funded by the The Rockefeller Foundation, used satellite data of nighttime lights to track changes in illumination before, during, and after the storm to indicate where blackouts had occurred, according to the Herald. The data were then mapped according to census block groups (a unit of area used as part of the U.S. census) and correlated to U.S. 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,” as the Herald story said.

Among several critical conclusions made by the analysis, “Predominantly white areas had an 11 percent chance of suffering an outage compared to a 47 percent chance in high minority share areas.”

As Taneja explained about the results, “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.”

The e-GUIDE Initiative is a collaboration among 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. (May 2021)