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(A Lack of Good) Electricity Outage Data

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When attempting to evaluate the overall health of the U.S. electric grid, one potentially important metric relates to outages – how often and how long customers are without power. But, data related to disruptions in electricity service are largely unavailable. In fact, many states do not require utilities to report data related to the impact of electricity outages. The end result is a limited dataset that may or may not be useful in identifying needs for investments for grid infrastructure.

On Monday, MIT released the Future of the Electric Grid after a two year study on the current state and future needs of this critical infrastructure. This latest “Future of…” report included a discussion of grid reliability. In this discussion, the reliability metric was introduced and then quickly followed by a discussion of the lack of usable data regarding outages. Specifically, the report’s authors stated that:

“…customers in the U.S. can expect to experience between 1.5 and 2 power interruptions per year and between 2 and 8 hours without power. This is on par with most European countries…”

But, they quickly insert the caveat that:

“Data on outages are neither comprehensive nor consistent, however. Most outages occur within distribution systems, but only 35 U.S. States require utilities to report data on [distribution outages]… it is accordingly impossible to make comprehensive comparisons across space or over time.”

This lack of comprehensive, usable data ties the hands of analysts wishing to provide a data-based evaluation of the current health of the nation’s electric grid. While available resources are certainly valuable, they could provide an inaccurate picture of the grid’s health. And, without an accurate picture, it is difficult to confidently identify where grid investments should be made.

[To download the new MIT report and see video from its launch, visit this website.]

Photo Credit:

  1. Photo of power lines in Florida by timl2k11 and used under this Creative Commons License.
Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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