I’m just back from a family vacation and getting caught up. Part of my routine is to skim the newspapers that I missed while I was gone. I’m not so much looking for news as I am for some of the more interesting articles, such as the one that caught my eye today. It seems that Kenya suffered a nationwide blackout recently that lasted more than three hours (some sections of the country were still without power the following day). The blackout disrupted businesses and Internet service for most of the country. The cause? A Vervet monkey came into contact with a transformer, which tripped off and began a cascading outage. The monkey survived.
As you can imagine, I got a good laugh out of it and thought, “What a unique problem.” That is, until I did a quick bit of research and found that one of the leading causes of power outages in the United States is animal contact, primarily squirrels. In a 2013 article in the New York Times Sunday Review, author Jon Mooallem catalogued some 50 outages in 24 states over a period of just three months. And, remember, these were just the outages that were big enough to make the news.
The effects of these animal contacts were not confined to simple outages. Mooallem notes two instances in 1987 and 1994 when squirrel contacts shut down the Nasdaq. In 2013, a squirrel chewing into high voltage lines near a water treatment plant in Tampa caused authorities to issue a boil water order lasting 37 hours. A flaming squirrel carcass falling from a utility pole started a 2-acre grass fire near Tulsa, OK the same year. The cost is not cheap either: some utilities estimate that as much as 20% of all outages may be caused by animal contact and a 2005 California study estimated that animal contacts cost the state between $30 to $317 million each year.
Utilities are not being idle. They have been experimenting with physical barriers, fake owls, and spraying utility poles with fox urine. But if you’ve ever owned a bird feeder, you know how hard it is to keep a determined squirrel out. Success has been limited so far. In one ironic incident, a hawk attacked one of the fake owls and caused a substation outage.
So the next time you’re feeling smug, remember that the infrastructure we rely on so heavily is also extremely brittle. It doesn’t take much to cause problems. A one-pound bundle of fur and teeth may be all it takes to ruin your day. Preparedness for power outages is always a good thing.