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What causes power outages?

Power outages can happen for a variety of reasons, and they’re always irritating when they do happen. Before going into the causes of power outages, we need to define what a power outage is.

An electricity outage is defined as a short or long-term loss of electric power in a certain area. There are three sub-categories of electrical outages, which you’ll probably hear mentioned when the news discusses an outage:
A brownout – a temporary drop in voltage in an electrical power supply.
A blackout – a complete loss of power to an area. These can last from moments to months depending on the severity and cause.
A fault – a power outage resulting from a physical fault on a power line, with energy automatically restored once the fault is resolved.

Power outages are caused by technical failures resulting from damage or disruption to the equipment, or broader reasons such as demand for electricity exceeding supply. The reasons for outages vary, as does the length of time it takes to restore service. Here are 9 of the most common causes of outages:

1. Storms: Whether it’s a newsworthy calamity or just winter, the elements are a common cause of power outages. High-speed winds as well as shifts in temperature and air pressure can cause damage to powerlines and electrical infrastructure resulting in outages.

2. Trees: Storms with strong winds, trimming by an untrained professional, or just the collapse of an aging or sick tree can all cause boughs to fall away from trees. When these limbs come into contact with power lines, they can cause interruptions and damage. Local councils will often keep an eye on problem trees, but if you spot a hazard be sure to report it before it becomes an outage.

3. Accidents: Here’s another to add to the list of the many reasons you shouldn’t drink and drive. A vehicle colliding with a utility pole or a junction box can cause a power outage. It varies how long it takes to fix these outages as the damage and severity of the accident is a difficult factor to predict.

4. Fires: Bushfires can severely damage both power infrastructure and electrical stations, while house fires that get out of control could potentially impact local powerlines.

5. Animals: Practically all the electrical equipment you see that is exposed to nature can withstand an encounter with a curious critter without zapping them. After all, we see birds and possums hanging from powerlines all the time. On top of this, power stations usually resemble military bases nowadays, with barbed wire and tall walls. However, there are still points where small animals – if they slip passed the defences – may have the bad luck of encountering, causing short circuits in the equipment.

6. Lightning: Lightning may never strike the same place twice (it actually can), but there’s no saying about it not striking electrical equipment. A bolt of lightning carries immense energy, more than enough to disrupt wires, cables, poles and transmission towers.  

7. Unauthorised burrowing: We get so used to seeing power lines above our heads that we can forget that they’re also beneath out feet. Underground power cables can be disturbed by digging from an inexperienced party. Before commencing any work that involves digging into the ground, it’s important to check with the local council that there are no underground cables you might sink a spade into.  

8. High Power Demand: This is the cause everyone thinks of when the fans stop spinning in the dead of that forty-five-degree day. Heat waves mean high power demand for providers, resulting in overburdened transformers and other electrical equipment. Other times such as winter can also result in sharp increases in power demand. When every home has three heaters running the power usage across the board only climbs.

9. Unreliable stations: A key cause for an increased occurrence of power outages is the declining reliability of ageing coal-fired power stations. Many of these stations remain active as long as they’re profitable, even though their effectiveness and reliability decrease over time. Building modern stations that utilise renewable energy decreases the risk and severity of power outages across the board.

Want to be certain you’re getting the best power deal available to you? Compare and Connect uses a purpose-built search engine, comparing the best plans from a variety of providers to make certain you’re always getting your money’s worth.

Keith Brouder 19 Nov 2019