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During the Next Blackout, Don't Just Blame the Weather?

When our lights go off, we blame the weather.

Oftentimes, weather is the cause of a power outage. It could have been a severe storm (like the derecho from 2012), a hurricane (Katrina and Irene, among others), or a heat wave.

While weather continues to be a cause of grid outages, vandalism is not to be ignored. Based on an analysis of the Department of Energy (DOE) report of electrical disturbance events, significant numbers of outages are caused by vandalism. As seen in the figure below, vandalism contributes to 40% of the outages per year, on par with severe weather. Among the 930 reported outages since 2011, 338 outages (over 36%) are attributed to vandalism [1]. What is more surprising is that among the 338 outages, only 15 (less than 5%!) are directly attributable to cyber (or suspected cyber) vandalism, with the remaining outages categorized as “physical vandalism” or just “vandalism.”

Another way to slice this data is to look at the Duration of the Power Outage. The figures below compare the longest duration power outage resulting from vandalism to severe weather. Surprisingly, the durations are comparable, notwithstanding the 130 day-long outage caused by vandalism (categorized as cyber vandalism) in the Eastern Interconnection. In other words, vandalism can cripple the grid just as well as a severe storm.

In the recent years, government programs such as the Smart Grid Investment Grant and documents such as the Quadrennial Energy Review placed a renewed emphasis on modernizing the electric grid, with emphasis on increasing resiliency. After all, weather related outage is costly. A Congressional Research Service study estimates the inflation-adjusted cost of weather-related outages at $25 to $70 billion annually [2].

Given 1) the frequency of vandalism related outage is increasing and 2) the duration of vandalism related outage is comparable to severe weather, resilience against vandalism has to be part of the grid modernization discussion. We in the energy and utility industry need to think about

  • - Definition of Vandalism. We need to define vandalism with good granularity. Now, vandalism is defined very loosely. We need ways to differentiate “intentional vandalism”, such as an attack on the grid (for example, the Metcalf Substation), from “accidental vandalism”, such a drunk driver hitting a utility pole.

  • - Metrics. Metrics are needed to define the severity and impact of vandalism. We also need to quantify the cost of the vandalism-related outages. One might assume that the costs of vandalism and severe weather outages are comparable, because the durations of the outage are comparable. Analysis is needed to verify this.

  • -Protections against Vandalism. While solutions are being developed to provide the electrical grid protection from cyber-attacks, we need to think about physical protection of the grid. I think this includes high-tech solutions such as sophisticated surveillance of the grid (perhaps including drones or network-connected accelerometers on key grid components) to brute-force solutions like wider perimeters around above ground infrastructure and greater undergrounding of power lines (though that comes with its own set of issues beyond increased costs).

Experts estimate $338 billion, as much as $880 billion, is needed to modernize the grid [4, 5]. It is important to invest in technologies that make the grid smarter and more energy efficient. Let us not forget the necessary investments needed to harden the grid from vandalism.


[1] Data on vandalism is very sparse before 2011.
[2] Campbell, Richard J. “Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency.” Congressional Research Service. August 28, 2012. www.crs.gov, R42696.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Estimating the Costs and Benefits of the Smart Grid A Preliminary Estimate of the Investment Requirements and the Resultant Benefits of a Fully Functioning Smart Grid, ERPI, 2011.
[5] Chupka, M. W., Earle, R., Fox-Penner, P., Hledik, R., Transforming America's Power Industry: The Investment Challenge 2010-2030, Edison Electric Institute, 2008.
#QER, #smartgrid, #grid,

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