After leaving behind a trail of destruction in the Caribbean, Hurricane Sandy struck New York on October 29, 2012. There, the storm claimed the lives of 53 people, destroyed thousands of buildings, and caused severe disruptions of public infrastructure, including water supply, transportation, and electricity. By some estimates, over 2 million customers experienced power outages in the aftermath of the storm.
Just few years earlier, in 2007, Bangladesh was hit by one of the most powerful storms the country ever experienced. Cyclone Sidr formed in the central Bay of Bengal and quickly strengthened to reach sustained wind speeds of over 260 km/h. The storm hit Bangladesh on November 15, 2007 and caused the deaths of around 3400 people, according to the Government of Bangladesh. The cyclone also led to one of the largest blackouts ever recorded: 75 million people lost access to power, which translated into 1.9 billion customer-hours of lost electricity services.
These experiences underline not only the vulnerability of densely populated coastal areas to natural shocks but also more specifically the vulnerability of key lifeline infrastructure. Even in high-income industrialized economies, electricity infrastructure can be heavily affected by natural shocks. Moreover, historic data from many countries show that the power outages due to Hurricane Sandy and Cyclone Sidr were by no means isolated incidents. Natural hazards are indeed among the most frequent causes of electricity supply disruptions. In this article, the authors summarize existing data sources and research to illustrate the vulnerability of power systems to natural shocks.
Natural Shocks (Especially Storms) Are a Leading Cause of Blackouts
A total of 2169 major power outages were recorded in the USA between the years 2000 and 2017. 2 These power outages were caused by a wide range of different factors that the authors broadly categorized into natural and non-natural causes. Natural shocks include storms, severe weather, extreme temperature, wildfire, and floods, whereas non-natural causes include operational disruptions, planned load shedding, unplanned technical failures, fuel supply shortages, and vandalism. An analysis of these outages shows that natural shocks account for 55% of all power outages, thus making natural shocks the leading cause of power outages in the USA. Nationwide, storms account for the majority of all natural hazards that caused outages (63%). But, the share of power outages caused by natural shocks varies significantly from state to state, ranging from 0% in Montana to 100% in Washington, DC (Figure 1). This large variation is indicative of the wide range of drivers that determine the probability of power outages, including the exposure to different types of natural hazards, environmental factors such as vegetation, the density of the grid, and regional differences in the quality of electricity infrastructure.
Similarly, in 26 European countries, 3 the Council of European Energy Regulators recorded a total of 463 significant power outages. 4 Unlike in the USA, the majority of power outages in the observed 17-year time frame were caused by non-natural causes (55%), while 27% of outages were due to natural shocks. The share of power outages caused by natural shocks varies widely – from 4% in the Slovak Republic to 73% in Slovenia. In addition, using data from Bangladesh, we arrive at similar estimates for a developing country: Storms are estimated to cause 3% and 33% of all the power outages in Chittagong and Dhaka, respectively.
These estimates from various countries also demonstrate that the vulnerability of electricity networks to natural shocks is not simply explained by the income status of a country, as lower income countries are not necessarily more or less vulnerable to natural shocks. Instead, electricity network vulnerability depends on a variety of factors, including network density, vegetation, and maintenance practices.
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