What causes power outages?
We’ve all been there. The lights go out when you least expect it and stay out – sometimes for hours and sometimes for days. Power outages affect all countries and all areas, especially in the winter and summer months when snowstorms and hurricanes wreak havoc on power lines.
“Although they’re not common in developed countries, even the world’s most advanced electricity systems are prone to eventual power outages,” said Casper Ohm, a marine biologist and founder of Water-Pollution.
Through Ohm’s research with NGOs across the world, he’s seen a variety of reasons for power loss, which fit into two categories:
- Outages caused by natural events
- Outages caused by human error or design
“In developing countries, the causes of power outages are related to human mistakes and inadequate machinery maintenance,” Ohm told Choose Energy. “In contrast, in developed countries, these phenomena causes are mostly natural.”
That includes thunderstorms, earthquakes, tornados, animals, and tree limbs, to name just a few, Ohm says. In the U.S., most outages are caused by these natural occurrences, and some parts of the country are more prone than others.
“Coastal cities face hurricanes and tropical storms every year and the accompanying high winds cause mass power outages,” explained home insurance expert Melanie Musson of USInsuranceAgents.com. “Older cities with established trees lining the streets are especially vulnerable because of how often trees and limbs fall on wires.”
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The Energy Information Administration (EIA) tracks outages across the U.S. each year. In 2019, Maine had the most outages, averaging three to four per customer. The state also had the longest outages, at an average of more than 13 hours.
Meanwhile, Vermont had the fewest outages, with customers experiencing either zero or one outage throughout the year. On average, outages lasted less than 30 minutes. Of the 144 major electrical occurrences or disturbances of 2019, 92 of them, or about 64 percent, were reported as “severe weather” disturbances.
With natural outages being the most common cause of power loss in the U.S., it’s important to understand the many ways power lines can be affected. To some extent, it’s normal for weather to create power disruptions from time to time.
“Sometimes it’s caused by trees falling and bringing down electrical wires. Other times a transformer will blow after being struck by lightning. Ice and snow can weigh down electric lines and cause them to break,” Musson told Choose Energy.
That said, an aging grid and higher electricity demand across the country are straining against the weight of changing weather patterns and stronger storms, likely leading to more frequent outages in the years to come.
“Power outages are primarily caused by storms, lightning or high winds knocking out power lines,” said President Scott Laskey of Sandbar Solar & Electric. “Climate change is creating stronger, and more unpredictable weather patterns which is exacerbating this problem.”
The second type of power outage is one caused by human interference, whether accidental or intended. Accidental events include poor equipment maintenance or injury to the system.
“One of the most common human-causes for an outage is a vehicle hitting a telephone pole and disrupting service,” Musson said. “Sometimes hitting a telephone pole will cause a power outage for just a few homes, but other times, if the pole they hit carries electricity to a widespread area, hundreds of people can be impacted.”
Power loss can also be planned, seen in preventative measures that have swept the west of the country in recent years.
“As we’ve seen here in California, utility companies have been deliberately creating power outages in an effort to mitigate the risk of wildfires,” Laskey told Choose Energy.
The idea behind these intentional blackouts is to reduce the possibility of a live power line being damaged during high wind or other severe weather conditions.
Other deliberate blackouts are rolling blackouts, where a utility company decides to cut power to certain areas in the case of low reserves and high demand – in other words, when residents are cranking up air conditioners and the state is running out of energy to feed them, as happened in California in the summer of 2020.
How can I prepare for a power outage?
The key to smoothly weathering a power outage, much like all other emergency events, in advanced preparation. This includes thinking through where you need electricity the most. When it comes to strong storms such as hurricanes and blizzards, prepare to be out of power for multiple days.
“If you know a powerful storm is heading your way, prioritize what needs electricity. A deep freeze freezer will stay cold for a couple of days if it’s kept shut. You may consider moving items into the deep freeze,” Musson recommended.
She explained that unregulated temperatures are an especially large concern when dealing with power loss in the extreme seasons.
“In the summer, store a gallon and a half of water per person per day. You’ll need to stay hydrated in high temperatures to help prevent heat stroke,” said Musson. “If you’re preparing for winter weather, keep blankets ready. If your home’s temperature drops too low, you’ll need to leave and find shelter elsewhere.”
Prepping your emergency kit
Because outages usually happen without warning, having an emergency kit prepared well in advance can be a game changer. Keep the things in this kit together in a place where you won’t forget it. Make sure to periodically check that nothing needs to be replaced. Your emergency kit may include:
- Electronics chargers
- Non-electronic activities
- Manual can opener
- Paper plates and cups
- Plastic utensils
What you need in your emergency kit will depend on the members of your household and their needs. For a comprehensive list, see the U.S. government’s resource for building a disaster supplies kit.
Planning for meals in the dark
Keep in mind that with the power out, your ability to cook food will be extremely limited. During storm seasons, it’s a good idea to keep the house stocked with nonperishable food items so you’re ready whenever the lights turn off.
Refrigerators maintain their temperature for about four hours without power, while freezers stay cold for up to 48 hours, providing a little leeway for using perishable food items. Outside of these time windows, you’ll want to rely on canned and dry goods. Here are a few items to keep on hand in the event of power loss:
- A gallon of water per person per day (more in the summer)
- Canned meats, fruits, and vegetables
- Granola bars
- Dried fruit
- Dry cereal
For more ideas and quantity suggestions, see the U.S. government’s emergency food supplies list.
What should I do after a power outage?
One of the first things you’ll want to take care of when the lights come back on is any spoiled food. Toss anything perishable that has been kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for 2 or more hours.
As for electronics and appliances, they won’t be damaged by the power going out but they could be damaged by the surge caused when the power goes back on.
“Most of the time, everything will be fine when the power comes back on,” explained Musson. “There is a slight chance, though, that large electronics will be damaged when the electric starts up again. To be on the safe side, unplug your TV, stereo equipment, computer, and appliances and plug them back in after the power is on again.”
Surge protectors can also prevent against this damage, without the hassle of unplugging all electronics during every outage. That said, there’s no need to worry if you weren’t home when the outage occurred.
“Often, the electricity goes out and comes back on during the day when you’re not home, and most of the time the appliances and electronics will handle everything fine. But if you’re home, there’s no harm in erring on the side of prevention,” Musson concluded.
Can power outages be prevented?
While most Americans are reliant on the national electric grid and can’t control outages, there are ways to minimize your risk of experiencing a power loss.
One of the most popular outage-preventers are home generators, including portable and standby options. While these systems can’t stop the national grid from experiencing an interruption, they can keep your home up and running enough for basic comforts.
The most affordable home generator option is a portable generator. There are both conventional generators, which are powered by gasoline, and inverter generators, which are powered by gasoline or propane. Inverters are better for the environment, but also less powerful.
Conventional generators run from $400 to $1500, depending on how much power you need. When making the decision to invest in a generator, consider how often you’re out of power and how well you can manage without it. For example, if you have a baby or elderly resident, power may be more essential to your household. Consider how your house will fare without power, too.
“If your basement is prone to flooding and you depend on a sump pump, you’ll want to plan ahead well in advance of the storm and make sure you have a generator to keep your sump pump working and your lower level dry,” explained Musson.
The next level of home generators are standby generators, permanent installations that cost more but last longer, run more quietly, and are more powerful. Standby generators are good investments if you are very frequently left without power or absolutely require it to survive.
A second option for outage prevention – and a favorite among residents with solar panels – are solar batteries.
“The best way to prepare for a power outage is to think long term and invest in solar and battery storage,” said Laskey. “The combination of the two will help you keep the lights on during an outage as well as power other essential appliances in your home.”
Because these systems are not connected to the national power grid, they can continue running independent of any power outages the main system is experiencing. This makes them an ideal green energy option for resilient and reliable power, Laskey explained.
Battery storage, once far from a reality for the average American, has been rapidly growing over the past few years as energy utilities and solar companies invest in development. Storage systems are an important piece to renewable energy integration, as they can store wind and solar energy for future use when, for example, the sun doesn’t shine or your power goes out.
“Dependent on the size of the battery, you should be looking at two to three days before it needs to be charged again,” Luke Cove of Australian solar company Lightning Solar & Electrical told Choose Energy.
This not only allows time for the power to be restored, Cove explained, but it also means that with enough sunlight the system could be permanently independent of the main area grid. That said, while the cost of battery storage continues to decrease over the years, it is still an expensive option for the average homeowner.
“The cost of a solar battery is also high, so this solution would require money, but it would be a permanent fix for homeowners who suffer regular power outs,” Cove concluded.
The third and most systemic way to reduce or prevent power outages is increased investment in microgrids. Microgrids are essentially mini electric systems that work independent of the national grid.
“Microgrids are free-standing energy systems which include solar panels, a battery backup, low-emission natural gas generator, and specialized control systems,” Laskey explained. “Microgrids are flexible enough to power structures ranging from residential homes to large commercial buildings.”
Laskey’s Sandbar Solar & Electric headquarters is powered entirely by the company’s own microgrid. Microgrids help make the national grid more resilient by allowing for fewer interruptions – and faster recovery from the ones that do occur.
Microgrids can pull more easily from local sources, renewable and otherwise, that the national grid does not use. They can remain connected to the main grid, if desired, and disconnect when a problem occurs to become an energy island. Alternatively, it can permanently function on its own if it has enough energy reserves to support it.
“Microgrids are the ultimate solution for energy independence,” Laskey concluded. “A microgrid system generates resilient, green, reliable power for people who want to escape from the utility grid and avoid outages.”
The Choose Energy expert opinion
“As our national electric system gets older and climate change intensifies, power outages are likely to become more frequent. Prepare in advance with an emergency kit and food supplies and consider investing in outage solutions in years to come.”