- Squirrels and many other factors lead to power failures.
- The physical robustness of the electricity system has limits, so we need to be psychologically prepared to be without power.
- In the end, the cause of a power failure is less important than being ready for one.
On October 21, 2014, electricity in areas of Providence, R.I. was knocked out for almost two hours. Media reported that a squirrel had entered a power station and did not survive when it damaged electricity transmission equipment. Are we psychologically ready for such situations? After all, even with localised or entirely off-grid systems, everyone's home will likely lose power at some point, whether for minutes or weeks.
Mentally preparing for power outages
Research on psychological responses to blackouts provides clear lessons. In line with decades of previous disaster research, panic and looting are exceptions rather than norms and people respond selflessly more commonly than selfishly or criminally. From spontaneously directing traffic to offering sanctuary to strangers, we tend to want to help more than harm each other during times of darkness.
To reduce exceptions and outliers, preparedness is paramount, notably improving our mental readiness and gearing up to help ourselves and others. Some people with medical and mental health difficulties are especially vulnerable. Do they depend on electricity to keep them alive? And what backups are ready? Do they respond adversely to not having power? And what could prepare them or carers for it?
Without power, cell phone towers might not provide a signal and the internet will not typically function. Unless we have a satellite phone, a battery-operated satellite internet terminal, or a generator—and then be wary of carbon monoxide poisoning—we will be out of contact with each other and news sources. Do we have a plan for meeting up with family in the absence of communications and verifying information? Will we obsessively check our phones every minute, just in case a signal appears? Or can we just get on with needed tasks?
Have we stored (assuming it is all affordable) two weeks' worth of non-perishable food (and a manual can opener, if relying on cans), bottled water, hygiene, and medical products, a wind-up or battery-operated radio, and a wind-up or battery-operated flashlight? Spare batteries help, too. Candles and matches are a possibility, yet pose a fire risk. Similarly, people with fireplaces could use them for heat and light as long as they are operated safely.
In cold and hot weather, the lack of indoor temperature control can be life-threatening. If we have a car, should we warm up or cool down in it while charging our phones? Or does that waste gas and possibly hurt us from an idling vehicle’s emissions?
The time to act on these questions and answers is now. If we wait until the electricity is out, then it is too late. We are not likely to be psychologically ready.
Being well-prepared for losses of power does not avert errant critters from powerful impacts (pun intended). Disaster-prevention tasks remain, aiming to minimise power disruptions from happening, rather than just minimise their impacts after they have happened.
Scientists model blackout frequency, duration, and severity. Business continuity plans have power interruption as a key instance. Many home insurance policies cover frozen food lost in a thaw.
Solar storms—when large amounts of charged particles from the Sun reach the Earth—are a core fear for those running electricity grids. A slew of past outages range from telegraph communications disrupted in 1859 through to electricity blackouts starting in the 1940s and radio outages in 2022.
Mechanical failures and poor maintenance are culprits. Transformer explosions in Toronto, Canada left people in the dark in 2018 and 2019. A series of design faults, equipment problems, human errors, software mistakes, and cascading load re-distribution led to entirely separate blackouts in 2003 in northeastern North America, London in the U.K., Scandinavia, Italy, and Switzerland.
Terrorism and other violent conflicts remain threats. Last month, from North Carolina to Washington, power stations were disrupted from gunfire-related sabotage. Ukraine continues to suffer from unreliable electricity due to bombardments by Russia. Cyber-attacks are an ever-present worry.
Demand exceeding supply and inadequate infrastructure produce electricity interruptions. Load shedding continues in South Africa while California dodged expected rolling blackouts last year. Environmental hazards regularly induce damage—and the grids themselves can start a fire, as in 2009 in Victoria, Australia which killed 119 people (with 173 fire-related deaths total on that day).
Balancing physical and psychological preparedness
Amid all these menaces, whither pesky rodents? How much are animals considered in readiness and prevention? How do animal-related outages compare with other reasons for power cuts at the household or continental scale?
Squirrels are sometimes implicated as the animal causing the most power outages, followed by birds. Mice and rats are mentioned, too. Large mammals, such as elephants, blunder into sagging electricity lines, often dying and periodically causing a blackout. Mussels clog pipes and other power plant equipment. Insects harm trees that then fall across power lines.
How prominently should our mental models and probabilistic models place these animal impacts? Do we accept “the squirrel factor” as a regular cause of power outages, or do we consider it be anomalous or as impossible-to-calculate randomness? Fundamentally, how should we balance physical and psychological preparedness?
We could design electricity generation and supply systems that are far more robust when animals encounter our vexing-for-them infrastructure—also helping to save the critters’ lives—and for other challenges. Costs would skyrocket and might not necessarily address all provocateurs of power cuts.
What are we doing now to prepare our home and workplace for no electricity? Especially regarding psychological preparedness for ourselves?
Feng, M.-L.E., O.O. Owolabi, T.L.J. Schafer, S. Sengupta, L. Wang, D.S. Matteson, J.P. Che-Castaldo, and D.A. Sunter. 2022. Analysis of animal-related electric outages using species distribution models and community science data. Environmental Research: Ecology, vol. 1, no. 1, article 011004.
Grineski, S.E., T.W. Collins, and J. Chakraborty. 2022. Cascading disasters and mental health inequities: Winter Storm Uri, COVID-19 and post-traumatic stress in Texas. Social Science & Medicine, vol. 315, article 115523.
National Research Council. 2012. Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
Rubin, G.J. and B. Rogers. 2019. Behavioural and psychological responses of the public during a major power outage: A literature review. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, vol. 38, article 101226.