Will your power go off during a storm? No one knows

"Is a power outage due to a . . . weather event any less disruptive to a customer than an outage due to a technical failure of a substation? We would argue no," says oshanak Nateghi. (Credit: West Coast Lineman/Flickr)

Regulation of electric power reliability in the United States is so haphazard it’s nearly impossible to know the true risk of losing service in a major storm, an analysis finds.

Major weather-related outages have increased in recent decades, and research shows extreme weather events will occur with more intensity and frequency in the future.

But power providers do not necessarily have to report storm-related outages, leaving customers with an incomplete picture of system reliability and potentially limiting efforts to improve it, researchers concluded in a paper published in the journal Risk Analysis.

power grid graphic
Major electric power disruptions in the United States grew more than five-fold between the early 1990s and the end of the 21st century’s first decade. (Credit: US Energy Department)

“Is a power outage due to a . . . weather event any less disruptive to a customer than an outage due to a technical failure of a substation? We would argue no,” says lead author Roshanak Nateghi, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

“A lost-power event is a lost-power event if you are a customer. . . . Utilities need to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to protect their systems and mitigate the impacts of disasters.”

What’s the definition of ‘reliability’?

Because the nation relies so heavily on its electric grids, the researchers wanted to evaluate the standards enacted to measure their reliability. They found there are no national laws or regulations establishing acceptable frequency and duration of outages for power distribution systems; that’s left to individual states.

And the states, they found, didn’t even agree on the definition of “reliability.”

The researchers found several key problems with this mishmash of standards.

3 problems

First, in assessing a utility’s reliability, regulators typically do not count power outages caused by major storms, like Hurricane Sandy or the derecho that hit the Northeast in 2012 and caused millions to lose power.

If storm-related outages aren’t counted, even if severe, a utility has a reduced incentive to upgrade infrastructure to prepare for future bad weather, the analysts argue.

Second, many utilities only report regional outage averages; that can mask what’s really happening with outages in certain areas. A region’s average might look good, even if there are pockets of consistently poor service, which is common in rural areas.

Lastly, no one was regulating vegetation maintenance, although downed trees are the second-leading cause of power outages.


The researchers concluded that existing standards don’t provide a sufficient incentive for utilities to ensure reliable service for customers, particularly during major storms.

“When the power goes off during a storm, a power company might get grief but in the end, people forget and we go back to business as usual,” Nateghi says. “If the appropriate reliability standards for handling the impacts of extreme events are not put in place, we may face a more highly stressed grid in the future.”

The research team also included Seth D. Guikema, an associate professor of geography and environmental engineering, and two former Johns Hopkins graduate students. Funding for the research came from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy.

Source: Johns Hopkins University