New Data Brings Transparency to the Number, Duration of Power Outages

In the United States, we assume that when we flip a light switch the lights will go on. Reliable electric power is a given. Except when it’s not.

Take, for example, the time I visited my parents in Oregon in 2008. Buried under 19 inches of snow — actually it was snow, then freezing rain, which formed a frosty creme brulee crust — we spent Christmas eve huddled under blankets, reading books by candlelight and eating cold pie. For more than 24 hours, we were without power.

Major events like this dominate our perception of power outages. In reality though, small outages happen constantly—but because they may affect only a few homes instead of an entire region, we rarely notice them.

So how much time do you spend without power, really?

Until recently, that question was very, very hard to answer. There is no central, standardized database for grid reliability information. Electricity operators are required to report major outages affecting 50,000 customers or more to the Department of Energy, creating a database which Inside Energy compiled. But the DOE data is under and misreported, which makes it problematic for studying long-term trends, according to an analysis by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. What’s more, it only addresses the “bulk power system” (power plants and major transmission lines), not the lines that bring power to your house.

But someone out there is monitoring recording data on every single power outage: utility companies.

The bad news is that getting historical information about outages — the type of information that can help us understand if our grid is getting more or less reliable over time — means going directly to utilities and public service commissions. It’s a tedious and monumental task. (A task some have attempted: A study of utility-level data by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests grid reliability decreased at a rate of two percent a year from 2000 to 2009.)

But there’s good news, too. As of 2013, utilities now include data about the reliability of their service to the Energy Information Administration, in their annual reports. Data that was released, for the first time, last month. We only have one year of comprehensive reliability data, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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To read Jordan’s complete report and see her comprehensive graphics on the ins and outs of outages, please click here.

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