Rolling Blackout: A Temporary Power Outage
So, exactly what is a blackout?
A blackout refers to a total loss of utility grid power that can last minutes, hours, or even days. The longer lasting outages tend to be caused by natural disasters damaging the powerlines or other grid infrastructure.
Before we go on, a show of hands, who among our readers remembers the classic 1968 Doris Day film Where were you when the lights went out? Okay, we just wanted to make sure we weren’t the only one’s!
The movie was set in New York during the infamous northeast blackout in November of 1965 where 30 million people across seven U.S. states and parts of Canada lost power for over 14 hours.
What causes a blackout?
Well, the 1965 northeast blackout was caused by a faulty relay. That power outage caused chaos throughout the area (and in Doris Day’s movie marriage!). Traffic lights failed and grid lock ensued. People were trapped in elevators and subway trains. Everyone was stuck in the dark in different and often precarious situations.
Blackouts can be caused by a myriad of other things besides a faulty relay. Things like damaged transformers, lightning strikes, storms downing trees falling on to powerlines, or ice building up on powerlines. Additionally, things like triple-digit excessive heat can cause blackouts.
Heatwaves cause outages because power demand is pushed beyond the grid’s limit causing it to fail. When hundreds of thousands of air conditioner units are all switched on and start pulling power to make people even somewhat comfortable --it overwhelms the grid infrastructure. (Did I mention air conditioners are particularly voracious energy hogs?)
What is a brownout?
Another term to be aware of is brownout. A brownout is not a complete power failure, it instead is a reduction of power going to the grid -- think of it as a kind of voltage sag. So, to be clear, the biggest difference between blackouts and brownouts are:
- a blackout is a complete grid shutdown and
- a brownout is a “partial outage” or an energy flow reduction.
Think of a brownout like the dimming experienced by lighting during a voltage sag. A brownout reduces available power from the electric grid anywhere from 10 to 25%. Rather than the power grid going out completely, the grid’s capacity (its flow of electricity) is reduced.
Can my electronics be damaged by blackouts or brownouts?
Appliances can still be used during a brownout situation although depending on the device it may not be recommended because during a brownout the voltage is often fluctuating -- and this fluctuation could damage many of our more sensitive electronic equipment.
If a device needs a precise amount of voltage power to run, then the sagging and surging energy experienced during a brownout could damage smart devices like computers televisions or smart refrigerators etc. Some other these sensitive appliances should not be used because even though they may be able to function, there is still a high probability that their circuitry will be damaged.
You should also be aware that when the power surges back on after a blackout it can also damage sensitive electronic equipment.
So, then, what is a rolling blackout?
A rolling blackout is a tool that electric providers may use to prevent more widespread power outages during extreme heat times (with the accompanying wildfire danger) or during extreme cold times (with its potential heavy snow/ice loads and falling trees which endanger powerlines).
While blackouts caused by extreme storms or weather conditions are completely unexpected -- with consumers having no idea that they’re suddenly going to be left without electrical power -- rolling brownouts or rolling blackouts are planned by the utility companies to help relieve the demand stress on the grid to prevent a total and complete blackout.
So, in a rolling brownout or rolling blackout situation the utility companies, having planned these power reductions or power outages, know exactly how long the power will be out and when the power will be restored back to normal.
Why do utility companies purposefully plan a rolling blackout?
Utility companies use rolling blackouts and rolling brownouts purposefully as a tool to reduce load and prevent a more serious blackout. When the utility company predicts there’s going to be a massive spike in electrical use which will overburden the grid then they act by making the grid electricity unavailable for a short period of time until the danger of overload has passed.
So, rolling blackouts (or brownouts) are temporary rotation outages that are planned in selected areas to save electricity and protect the grid. This is done to balance the supply and demand of the electricity in the market. Normally, if the national power grid or regional power grid calls for a rolling blackout, then your local electricity provider will conduct temporary outages for specific areas for a specific amount of time.
This “shares the pain” so to speak, meaning that rather than letting any area suffer without power for too long, they will roll or move the outage from one area to another to limit the damage that being without power for a prolonged period could cause. Normally for this kind of planned rolling blackout or brownout there will be advanced warning or notice so that consumers can prepare for the event.
Who decides the rolling blackout schedule?
The electric utility will determine which service area will receive the temporary blackouts. There are some areas which will not be affected as much as others because they have power sensitive requirements like downtown areas that often have taller building with elevators, subways, or medical clinics and/or hospitals where power can literally be a life and death situation.
Power alert notifications.
In fact, sometimes, the utility may only send out a “power alert” request to ask its customers to actively try to reduce their power consumption thereby preventing grid overload during the peak demand times. Because we consumers do tend to care about our neighbors and our fellow citizens, this power alert is often enough to avoid triggering a cascading blackout scenario.
How long does the rolling blackout last?
So, the takeaway is that these planned rolling outages or power reductions, while they may occur on a regular basis, usually only last for a limited time and in a limited area and then “roll” on to the next area.
So, when you get that postcard from your utility saying your area will lose power for a several hours on a certain day at a certain time and recommends that you unplug sensitive electronics you should take note. The reason the utility company recommends unplugging sensitive electronic equipment is that when your power returns to full strength in a planned rolling brownout or surges as it comes back online after a rolling blackout it can damage the circuitry in sensitive electronic equipment.
Why do we have rolling blackouts?
As we discussed rolling blackouts are a tool used by utility companies to help manage peak demand and are instigated to prevent the grid from failing under peak use to avoid a longer, more-permanent blackout.
Rolling blackouts happen if the electricity supply is low compared with the demand. Extreme heat or cold can cause the imbalance of electricity supply and demand. With that, temporary outages can help to prevent the affected area from experiencing a longer blackout.
Warmer, populous states like California or Texas use rolling brownouts and rolling blackouts to prevent excessive demand in in excessive heatwave conditions to protect their grids from a total catastrophic shutdown. It’s a little like blowing off extra steam to prevent a boiler from building up too much pressure and exploding, so you can think of this technique is used as a kind of safety valve to keep the grid from having a disastrous cascading failure.
Also, in California during summer and fall wildfire season rolling blackouts are a commonplace occurrence because utility companies now will shut down their powerlines to prevent sparking wildfires. (We have over the last few years, here in California, lost large sections of rural towns to wildfires reportedly sparked by electrical transmission lines.) Therefore, cutting power completely is a method utility companies now use to reduce wildfire risk in extreme dry or windy weather.
In colder areas, like some of our northern states having electricity to warm your home during a blackout may avoid the need to later deal with the expense of frozen or burst pipes.
As a nation we have established some recent goals to work on improving our country’s infrastructure, and this includes increasing the capacity of electrical grid infrastructure. Even as officials are working to improve the reliability of the grid it still will not prevent that sudden unexpected loss of power. The reason for this that when demand hits its highest levels there is simply not enough grid capacity to meet this demand.
Electrical grid infrastructure inadequate for today’s peak hour usage.
Our electric grids were not designed to carry the kind of loads we sometimes place on them. Not only has the population grown, but also the amount of electrical power modern households use is far beyond what our grandparents would ever have envisioned.
We have so many electrical devices that didn’t even exist when some of our grandparents were young. Air conditioning, TVs, microwave ovens, dishwashers, computers, printers, laptops, tablets, cell phones to name a few, and all these devices need electricity to function.
Although our energy consumption has increased over the years, it is still peak use times that overwhelm the grid.
As our energy demands grow both because of the increase in population as well as the increase in the number of electronics we each have, rolling blackouts are becoming more and more common. It is not unusual today for each household member to have their own phone, tablet, laptop, computer and/or television.
Because it’s peak hour use that can trigger blackouts many states’ utility companies have instituted Time of Use electricity rates to try to reduce the sudden peak use strain on the grid.
Peak use is usually the period from 4 PM to 9 PM when the kids get home from school and the parents get home from work and suddenly thousands of electronic devices get powered up in a kind of cataclysmic power grab where everyone is switching on air conditioning units, lights, televisions, and computers to make their homes comfortable as they settle in for the evening and start to prepare dinner.
What can individuals do to help prevent blackouts?
Because extreme weather can lead to increased demand for electricity, the best thing you can do to help is to lower your own electricity consumption. Below are some tips to help prevent blackouts.
- Unplug appliances that aren’t in use.
- Use energy-efficient LED bulbs.
- Increase your thermostat temperature if the weather is hot.
- Decrease your thermostat temperature if the weather is cold.
- Use ceiling fans to push warm air down or draw it up by setting them clockwise in winter and counter-clockwise in summer. Using fans will increase air flow and reduce your need for power-hungry air conditioners or heaters.
- Get an affordable solar powered Nature’s Generator to power some of your electronic equipment during each day’s peak use period.
How do I prepare for a rolling blackout?
In any power outage it is necessary to have some supplies and know what you need to do to keep your family safe. See the list below on what to prepare before blackouts or rolling blackouts:
- Garbage bags
- First aid kit
- Moist towelettes
- Portable radio
- Cell Phone and battery pack
- Create an evacuation plan
- Stock up some food and water
What are the safety tips for rolling black out?
It is better to have your family safe and protected during the power outage. Here are some safety tips that you can follow:
- Turn off or disconnect all appliances.
- Do not turn off at least one light (That way you will know when the power returns).
- Avoid opening the door of your refrigerator to keep your food cold.
- Use your cell phone for emergencies only.
- Listen to portable radio for the updated information.
- Use a flashlight for emergency lighting. (Do not use candles due to the extreme fire hazard).
- Do not use a fossil-fuel powered generator inside or near the outside of your house -- especially near a door or a window!!
- This is the biggest preparation tip we can give you to prepare for a blackout -- invest in a very affordable solar powered Nature’s Generator.
Solar powered generators versus gas powered generators
These clean renewable energy generators will not harm your family because they do not emit dangerous fumes like gas-powered generators do. Carbon monoxide poisoning is called the silent killer. And we all have heard the tragic stories of a family that never wakes up after a blackout because of these deadly fumes from a gas-powered generator. A Nature’s Generator can be safely brought into your home without fear of toxic fumes because it does not emit any carbon monoxide fumes.
With an affordable solar powered Nature’s Generator, you will always be prepared for a blackout. With fossil fuel powered generators, you will also need to remember to have extra fuel on hand to run the generator. Remember, if your area does not have power, then the area’s gas stations also won’t have power to be open or to pump gas. With a solar powered generator your system you can always have it charged up and ready to provide electricity when you need it.
Bottom line (and this is a bottom line that won’t hurt your bottom line)
With a backup powered solar generator you will have the power to keep your lights on, your phones and laptops charged, the food in your refrigerator cold and fresh, you will be able to keep on top of important updates and alerts. With a solar powered Nature’s Generator, it will almost be as if the blackout never happened for your family. With a clean, green Nature’s Generator the above preparation lists are almost unneeded.
When we say that a Nature’s Generator is affordable, the generator itself is only $749.99. (Here it should be noted that the Nature’s Generator can be charged from a regular wall outlet without a solar panel if you just want to use it as an emergency backup generator.) Once it is charged it can hold the charge for at least four months of non-use. You can make your system green and sustainable by adding a portable solar panel to recharge the generator which would only bring the total for the generator and the solar panel to less than $1000. For this relatively small amount of money, you can make sure you and your family are prepared for and safe during the next blackout. Or you can invest a little bit more for a Nature's Generator elite system.
That way if someone later asks you:” Where were you when the lights went out?” you can say: “Safe at home, with lights on and power for essential equipment.” You can then share your secret of a surprisingly affordable solar powered Nature’s Generator system so they too can be prepared for the next blackout and not have to suffer through it without electricity.
* We want to give credit where credit is due. Professional writer, Joyce Dizon, worked with author Diane Underhill and contributed research and content to this blog titled: What Is a Rolling Blackout? Thank you, Joyce, for your contributions!