Power Outages 101: What Causes Them and What to Do About It

Power Outages 101: What Causes Them and What to Do About It

by | Educational, Electricity, Power

In our modern world, it’s easy to take certain things for granted. And one of the easiest things to take for granted is the invisible force that powers virtually everything in your home: electricity  

Since electricity has become such an integral part of everyday life, it’s easy not to think much about it — until it becomes unavailable. A sudden loss of electricity, otherwise known as a power outage, can negatively affect everything from working to cooking to being able to see at night.   

The worldwide electricity power grid is robust in most populated areas, designed to withstand the physical elements and human errors that can potentially shut down the system. While this works most of the time, sometimes the system fails and power goes out.  

Get ready to learn everything you need to know about power outages, from how and where they most often occur to what you can do to help mitigate their effects. 

What Are Power Outages? 

What Are Power Outages? | Worker fixing power linessource

Power outages are what occur when electricity — particularly the electrical power network, or electrical grid — is unavailable. There are many different causes for power outages, but the thing they all have in common is that they affect whole areas or regions, not just a single home.   

Why? Because the outage stems from the electricity supplier not within the home. If a home is without power but the rest of the neighborhood is receiving electricity, there’s likely a circuit breaker issue or some other household problem.  

What Causes Power Outages? 

There are many causes for why power outages occur. However, the three most common causes are natural causes, human error, and overload.   

Basically, any interruption between power generation and the supply of electricity to homes can cause a power outage. It can stem from inclement weather conditions, human error, equipment failure, and even animal interference. Scheduled maintenance can also cause a power outage, though this is usually communicated to households in advance by the utility company. 

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How Long Do Power Outages Last? 

Most power outages don’t last very long, with many ending seconds or minutes after beginning. However, sometimes outages can last a very long time, even several weeks.   

Since some power outages are caused by lightning or violent wind storms, power lines can become damaged and lead to long delays when restoring power. Extended outages impact entire communities and can even affect the economy when power is unavailable to large areas of the population. For example, the Northeast blackout of 2003 left 50 million people without power from New York to Canada’s capital Ottawa 

What Are the Different Types of Power Outages? 

Power Outages Different Typessource

In general, there are four main types of power outages: blackouts, brownouts, permanent faults, and rolling blackouts. Each of these has different causes and is dealt with in different ways, which are covered below.  

Blackout 

A blackout is a complete loss of power to an area. This is the most severe type of power outage, typically affecting large numbers of people over sometimes incredibly large areas. Blackouts usually result from major damage to electrical generation facilities (such as structural damage from violent wind storms or lightning strikes) and are particularly difficult to fix quickly — this is why these types of outages can last for several weeks in the worst-case scenarios. 

Brownout 

Brownouts typically occur if there is a drop in electrical voltage or a drop in the overall electrical power supply. The term for these types of outages derives from the dimming that happens to lights when the voltage sags. While brownouts do not cause a complete loss of power, they can cause poor equipment performance and some devices — such as hair dryers or electric ovens — may not operate with the lowered voltage during one of these outages. 

Permanent Fault 

A permanent fault is a sudden loss of power typically caused by a power line fault. These are simple and easy to deal with: once the fault is removed or repaired, power is automatically restored. This type of outage typically doesn’t affect large areas as it tends to trip up lines that are further down the supply line to homes. While larger blackouts and brownouts are caused by problems in the generation, this is caused by problems in the supply mechanism, which are usually easy to find and simple to fix.  

Rolling Blackouts 

Rolling blackouts are much different from the other three as they are planned power outages. These are usually implemented in areas with unstable grids or with infrastructure that cannot handle the population it serves. Rolling blackouts can also be caused if there’s not enough fuel to run power at full capacity, whether for the short term or long term.  

How Many Power Outages Happen Per Year in the US? 

In 2020, 1.33 billion hours of power outages affected the United States, which was 73% higher than in 2019. While this number fluctuates year over year, the number of people affected by these outages is noticeably increasing. Even though the blackout hours were higher, total outages were less than 1% of recorded customer-hours during 2020. 

When Are Power Outages Most Likely? 

Power outages are most likely to occur during storms, especially violent weather events that involve high winds, scorching temperatures, or freezing rain. Certain outages, such as rolling blackouts and brownouts, happen when there’s not enough power to run the grid. This can happen when renewables are used without a backup generation source for when there is only intermittent power available. That said, it more likely happens to areas that lack the infrastructure to serve a highly-populated area.  

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Can Power Outages Affect Cell Phones? 

Cell phones are unaffected by power outages as they are battery-operated. However, during a power outage, you won’t be unable to recharge your cell phone, and any calls you want to make may not get through. Whether cell phones function at full capacity during a power outage depends on whether the cell towers are also affected by the electrical shutdown.   

In some cases, such as rolling blackouts that affect different parts of a large city at different times, cell phones will continue to work because the cell towers are in a different region of the city and remain operational.  

Can Squirrels or Other Animals on Power Lines Cause Outages? 

Power Outages | Squirrel on Electric Linesource

Storms, especially ones involving wind, are the leading cause of power outages, but there’s a very unlikely cause that is responsible for many more power outages than you probably realize. Every year, more than one thousand power outages are reported, on average, due to electrical failures caused by animals. In fact, squirrels are responsible for up to 30% of power outages in some areas! 

Reporting and Tracking Outages 

Reporting and tracking power outages is essential to understanding them and how they progress over time. It also provides quick power restoration in instances that involve permanent faults. Below are some ways to report and check power outages in your area.  

How Do You Report Power Outages? 

Reporting power outages is simple and straightforward. All you need to do is locate your local Transmission and Distribution Service Provider (TDSP) and call them from a phone that’s working during the outage. You can also call your TDSP if you require support restoring power to your home. 

How Do You Check Power Outages in Your Area? 

To check outage status and get an estimated time of restoration for your electricity, you need to search for your address on the United States outage map and click on the circular outage icon. Clicking this icon will bring you to the “Outage Information” screen with information about any power outages in your area. Here you can check the estimated restoration time (ERT), as well as when the outage was reported. You can also see the cause and status of the restoration effort.  

Power Outage Locations and Causes 

Power Outage Causes | Freezing Weather and Icesource

Power outages occur all across the United States — though they tend to happen in some areas more than others. There are many factors for this: population density, susceptibility to storms, grid strength, and more. Below are details on where and why power outages happen most often in the U.S.  

What Areas Are Most Prone Power Outages? 

The areas that are most prone to power outages are regions with high population density, the capacity for severe heat waves or winter storms, and a grid that supports a large geographical area. These regions need to serve a lot of people and must have numerous generating plants, which increases the chances of accidents or human error that shut off the flow of electricity. Moreover, if they don’t have enough capacity to reliably serve such a population, it can lead to brownouts or rolling blackouts.  

Which States Have the Most Power Outages? 

Using the Blackout Tracker report, data is collected yearly from all 50 U.S. states to determine power outages of all types and sizes. California consistently leads the country in power outages by a considerable margin, with Texas in second place, followed by New York in third. While outages can vary year to year, the same five states have held the top spots for power outages over the past half a decade, with no signs of change ahead. 

What Is the Leading Cause of Power Outages in the United States? 

The leading cause of power outages in the United States is undoubtedly inclement weather. This includes heatwaves, flooding, freezing rain, severe wind, and other weather-related forces that negatively affect both power generation and transmission. Human error, infrastructure failure, and animal interference round out the most significant causes of outages in the U.S. on a consistent basis.  

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What Is the Leading Cause of Power Outages in California? 

As with the rest of the country, the leading cause of power outages in California is inclement weather. However, roughly a quarter of power losses in California reported no definite reason for their occurrence. This is unique among all the regions that experience significant amounts of power outages, as most across the rest of the country have clear reasons for failing.  

How Many Power Outages Occur in California? 

California experienced 25,281 power outages in 2019 (the last “normal” pre-pandemic year), which was a 23% increase from 20,598 the previous year. This is by far the most out of any state in the country, with more than double the amount of Texas, the next highest state.  

Where Are the Most Power Outages In California? 

Most power outages in California occur in major cities and highly populated zones, including the Bay Area and the corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. Outages are also typical in the valley and desert, two areas that experience frequent heat waves that can cause numerous blackouts during the summer months.  

What Is the Leading Cause of Power Outages In New York? 

As with California, and the rest of the United States, weather is the main culprit for New York’s power outages. In particular, Nor’easter winds are responsible for most outages, which can become very problematic in the winter. Fortunately, the average duration for outages in New York is only about an hour, according to Con Edison (Con Ed). 

How Many Power Outages Occur in New York? 

New York typically experiences more than 1,700 power outages each year, according to the official U.S. Power Outage Map in the most recent count. These outages occur throughout the year, but most happen in winter when strong storms roll in. Occasionally, intense summer heat waves can cause power outages to New York’s grid, though this is less common. 

Where Are the Most Power Outages in New York? 

Power outages tend to affect large areas of New York since the grid is interconnected and serves most of the state. However, given the population density of New York City, especially Manhattan, this centralized urban area tends to experience the brunt of the outages when they occur.  

Are Power Outages Increasing? 

With improving technology, power outages are becoming less frequent and not as lengthy as a percentage of total consumer usage. However, by sheer numbers they are occurring more frequently than ever before — and sometimes they can still last for several days or even weeks, especially if natural disasters strike.  

While there typically is only so much a homeowner or private citizen can do, there are ways to be prepared for a power outage, from stocking the house with necessary equipment and supplies to investing in a generator for emergency use.   

If you experience a power outage, alert your electricity provider as soon as you can. Many providers are now equipped with digital systems to automatically detect power outages, but some still rely on customer notifications to find and deal with blackouts and other types of breakdowns in the electrical supply.   

For more FAQs about electricity generation and reliability, continue exploring the Tara Energy website.  

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