Chances are you’ve experienced a power outage – if not more than one. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says Americans spent an average of 7 hours without power in 2021. The breakdown was uneven by state, with Louisiana experiencing 80 hours of outages while Delaware experienced around one.
Worldwide, 350 million people experienced power outages in 2021.
In our modern, digital world, electricity is the backbone of daily life. Power outages are becoming more frequent, and depending on how long they last, they run the gamut from mildly disruptive to downright dangerous.
Below are 7 causes to be aware of that could knock out your power.
Bad Weather and Natural Disasters
From heat waves to cold snaps, bad weather is a common culprit behind power outages. A report from Climate Central found that between 2000 and 2021 there were 1,542 weather-related major power outages. Considering “major outages” are defined as affecting 50,000 or more customers – the real story is much worse than that.
It’s hard to forget how Hurricane Maria, on the heels of Hurricane Irma, plunged the bulk of Puerto Rico into a blackout for nearly a year. It was by far the longest and largest blackout in U.S. history. It left 1.5 million customers in the dark, and it took 328 days to restore lost power to them all.
As recent events in North Carolina have shown us, America’s power grid is no stranger to physical attacks either. Gunfire on two substations left about 45,000 customers without power for days.
In an infamous unsolved case from 2013, one or more snipers fired at least 100 rounds into transformers at Pacific Gas & Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation outside San Jose, California.
Alarmingly, there have been more than 700 physical attacks on the U.S. electrical grid in the last decade alone.
Mike Mabee, a former Iraq war vet and self-taught grid security expert, says everybody should be alarmed by surging threats to critical electrical infrastructure, and he calls the power grid America’s “Achilles’ heel.”
They’re more stealth than brute force, but cyber-attacks, like natural disasters and physical attacks, are a significant threat to the power grid. Fact is, though most of us are more worried day to day about internet scams and identity theft, the U.S. electrical grid is attacked by hackers way more than most people realize.
According to Utility Dive, there’s a “near-constant barrage of attacks on utilities and grid assets.” Thankfully, none have brought the system to its knees.
The most famous power grid hack occurred in Ukraine in 2015. The attack, widely attributed to Russia, left roughly 230,000 residents without power.
Fast-forward to today, and Texas utility companies say they’re on high alert as the number of Russian hackers probing energy infrastructure has risen sharply.
Speaking about the U.S. electrical grid, cybersecurity professor Dr. Chris Bronk from the University of Houston said: “It’s a rickety ship, and we have ample evidence of its weakness.”
An electromagnetic pulse weapon would do serious damage to the electrical grid. During a house hearing in 2017, experts testified before Congress that a North Korean nuclear EMP weapon was an “existential threat” to the U.S.
Shockingly, they contended that such an attack could wipe out 90% of the U.S. population. It would be a true doomsday scenario.
Both Russia and China are known to possess such weapons as well.
Solar storms are the natural counterpart to manmade EMP weapons and could cause a catastrophic grid collapse. 23 years before the birth of the electrical grid, a massive solar storm struck.
Now known as the “Carrington Event,” the intense geomagnetic storm caused telegraph systems all over North America and Europe to fail. The systems went haywire: shooting sparks, shocking operators, and continuing to run even when they were disconnected.
If a solar storm the size of the Carrington Event struck today, it could lead to global blackouts that could last for months, if not years.
A much smaller storm in 1989 caused the entire province of Quebec to lose power.
In March of 2022, a nationwide blackout in Taiwan was caused by human error. According to Reuters, Taipower said engineers had been carrying out tests when they accidentally pressed the wrong switch. That’s a big “oops.”
Though uncommon, such mishaps do occur.
A 2021 loss of power at a New York City Transit Rail Control Center, which shut down half the subway system, was also the result of human error.
It’s not just people on the inside – the public can unintentionally cause outages, too. For instance, automobile accidents that take out utility poles and down power lines can lead to localized power outages.
America’s power grid is a dinosaur with a bad report card. In fact, the electricity we rely on comes from infrastructure that’s quickly becoming decrepit.
An energy report from 2021 points out that the U.S. electrical grid is way past its prime, saying: “The majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components more than a century old – far past their 50-year life expectancy – and others, including 70% of the transmission and distribution lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans.”
The bottom line is: the grid is aging, under a lot of strain, and needs to be upgraded.
Even a Short-Term Outage Can be Stressful if You’re Unprepared
Security expert Mike Mabee, who lives in Texas with his family, was moved by his research to install solar, wind, and battery power.
When Texas was battered by deadly winter storms in 2021, which killed hundreds, he and his family were able to remain safe and warm at home.
He cautions that, “the U.S. is literally on life support – plugged into the electric grid.”
There are several reasons why the grid could fail. Since most of our lives are tied to the grid, an unexpected power outage can range from mildly inconvenient to deadly, depending on how long it lasts and how prepared you are. It’s wise to be blackout ready.