There were 3,236 power outages in the U.S. in 2013, up 15% from 2012. California and Texas, the two largest states by population, had the most outages, but the rest of the list may surprise you. We'll also look at what's being done in response, the huge amount of investment the power grid needs, and two companies set to profit.
The data, compiled by Eaton (NYSE: ETN ) in its Blackout Tracker annual report, shows which states have the biggest power outage problems:
- New York
Outages were up 15% year over year while the number of people affected by them decreased 44%, from 25 million in 2012 to 14 million in 2013. If you're wondering how that happened, while the two biggest states have the most power outages, Michigan comes in third while only having the ninth largest population.
Virginia, similarly, did markedly worse than its population would suggest. Virginia has the 12th largest population but was seventh in the number of outages.
The Department of Energy estimated last year that weather-related outages cost the U.S. $18 billion to $33 billion a year. However, Eaton estimates that the number grows to $150 billion a year if you include total electrical power outages, surges, and spikes.
One of the main causes of outages is the United States; aging equipment and the impact of severe weather. The Department of Energy estimates that 70% of the power grid's transmission lines and power transformers are over 25 years old, while the average power plant exceeds 30 years old. As the grid ages, severe weather does more damage, and weather-related outages have been increasing steadily since 1992.
A leading cause of economic damage is the existence of bottlenecks in the grid, as U.S. demand grows. Bottlenecks, when not causing blackouts, still lead to extremely high prices during peak usage.
To meet demand, from 2000 to 2010 the U.S. averaged $63 billion a year in expenditures on the power grid, and the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the U.S. needs to increase that amount by over $10 billion a year, to roughly $75 billion annually until 2020. Ninety percent of the additional investment is needed in the transmission infrastructure of the grid, as it expands to cope with increased demand in different parts of the country.
This need to deal with demand is where I see two opportunities.
How you can profit
ITC Holdings (NYSE: ITC ) is the best way to directly invest in the U.S. need for new transmission lines. ITC owns transmission lines from which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, allows a fixed return on equity. Local regulators generally cap what companies can earn on transmission lines, but FERC allows higher rates on new transmission lines as an incentive for companies to upgrade lines and build new ones. ITC does both: It builds new lines, and it also acquires transmission line assets from local utilities and upgrades them.
In its recently released five-year plan, ITC expects to invest $4.5 billion in new transmission projects by 2018 and plans to see compound annual earnings-per-share growth of 11%-13% and compound annual dividend growth of 10%-15% on that investment. ITC currently pays a $0.14 quarterly dividend, for a yield of 1.5%. With the stock at 25 times earnings, that means you're paying up for ITC at its current price, but as the need for transmission investments grows, ITC has a long runway ahead for growth.
While ITC benefits from FERC's goal to expand the grid, Opower (NYSE: OPWR ) profits from persuading consumers to use electricity more carefully. Opower works with utilities to identify consumers' power usage and then sends consumers personalized messages to nudge them to use less power. Opower also provides Web-based tools to allow consumers to control their thermostats and can show them the optimal way to use less power. Further, Opower has a suite of tools for utilities to up their customer experience and engagement -- things that utilites are generally not known for. The company is not yet profitable, but it did grow 70% last year and is continuing to add more utilities. As Opower grows, the company should become profitable as it achieves economies of scale.
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