Most people rarely think about where their electricity comes from—until it’s not there. Long-term power outages remain relatively infrequent. But with aging infrastructure, ever-worsening extreme weather events, and geopolitical instability increasing, long-term blackouts are becoming more common. When a long-term power outage does hit, it can create havoc.
The last few years have shown that even long-reliable electrical grids can experience catastrophic problems—leaving many thousands of homes without power for hours and sometimes even days. With global climate change worsening, power outages are poised to become a much more common event in our daily lives.
But just because blackouts are becoming more frequent doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself. Preparation is critical to surviving a long-term power outage.
Common Reasons for a Long-Term Power Outage
Power outages can result from a whole catalog of issues, the most common being natural disasters and extreme weather. Weather-related events account for roughly 83% of all power cuts.
Extreme weather: The most common reason for long-term power outages is when high winds, snow, ice, or extreme temperatures, such as an extended heat wave, arrive.
Spikes in power demand: During periods of high power demand, usually in either very hot or cold weather, aging electrical grids and infrastructure can struggle to keep up.
Power surges: A power surge is an unusually high voltage event that typically lasts for a short period. A surge can cause an outage itself or occur after utility providers restore power, potentially damaging home appliances.
Human error: One of the worst outages in U.S. history, the Northeast Blackout of 1965, was caused by a maintenance worker incorrectly laying a protective relay on a transmission line.
Trees/Vehicles/Animals: Fallen trees, often during storms, are a significant source of outages, while simple vehicle collisions with a utility pole can be hugely damaging. You’d also be amazed at how much damage squirrels, rats, and other animals can do to electrical equipment.
Natural disasters: Power outages often follow in the wake of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions.
How Likely Is an Extended Power Outage?
With aging grid infrastructure unable to keep up with growing demands for electricity, power outages will likely be a factor in our lives for many years to come. With increasingly erratic weather patterns and extreme weather events due to climate change, it can sometimes feel like we are always just a few steps away from disaster.
To date, most power outages in the United States remain relatively small scale. The average person experienced eight hours of power interruptions in 2020. U.S. utility customers experienced a total of 1.33 billion outage hours, higher than in 2019 but lower than in 2018, much of it due to a series of natural disasters that year, such as Hurricane Isaias. Maine, West Virginia, and California experienced the most prolonged outages, with residents of Maine experiencing 15 hours’ worth of outages per year on average.
While there are certainly hotspots, other parts of the country see far fewer outages, with the District of Columbia coming out on top, with just 77 minutes of power interruptions each year.
In 2021, Texas suffered a major power crisis. Over 4.5M homes and businesses were left without power in the dead of winter, many for days. At least 246 people died due to the long-term power outage.
It’s easy to get into a Doomsday scenario when thinking about an extended power outage. The Northeast Blackout of 1965 affected over 30 million people. It lasted 14 hours, making it one of the most widespread outages in U.S. history. But what would happen if something like that continued for days or weeks?
The U.S. government has contingency plans for such an event that would probably see the Army and National Guard step in to prevent widespread panic.
A 14-hour outage pales compared to Venezuela’s five-day blackout in 2019, which affected 70% of the country. The results were dramatic and frequently harrowing. In hospitals, vital life-saving equipment failed, leaving medical professionals battling alone while people remained trapped in lifts, on public transport, or even in their homes.
Extended power outages in the U.S. remain relatively infrequent. Still, with an ever greater strain placed on our power grids—along with increasingly extreme weather—we will probably see more blackouts in the future. Preparation has never been more vital.
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