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Why US Has More Power Outages than Europe

Why US Has More Power Outages than Europe

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Whenever there’s a significant power outage, someone trots out statistics comparing US power grid performance to that of Europe. While such comparisons can’t be avoided and many of the criticisms are legitimate, understanding some of the fundamental differences helps put the issues into context.

Power Outages. When US power outages are compared to those in Western Europe, the numbers aren’t good. According to a 2012 US government report, the typical American can expect to lose power an average of 1.5 times a year for a total of 240 minutes. Figures vary by country, but the typical Western European can expect to lose power an average of 1 time a year for a total of 58 minutes.

Infrastructure. The US electrical grid has been a system in the making since the early 1900s. Over time, it’s grown, expanded into new territory and evolved into a massive interconnected network, but this combination of age, size, scope and varied technologies presents significant challenges.

The story in Europe is different. Following the devastation of World War II, most power systems were completely reconstructed, and many countries opted for underground utilities, particularly in urban areas. These facts create distinct advantages: Europe’s power infrastructure is significantly younger, and buried power lines offer greater protection from downed lines and outages due to storms, wind, lightning and falling trees.

Power Providers. The US electrical system is overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and a host of state and local agencies, while service is provided by a patchwork of large and small companies. This structure complicates coordination and implementation, whether the issue is emergency outage responses or system upgrades.

In contrast, most national European power utilities are governed by a single regulatory body that oversees the country’s entire power system. If nothing else, this creates a much more streamlined approach to emergency responses and routine improvements.

Weather. Certainly Europe sees its fair share of dramatic weather, but there are some notable differences. Hurricanes, which many describe as the most destructive type of storm, are common in the US and rare in Western Europe.

The US also experiences more tornadoes than any other country in the world, averaging 1000 a year. Conversely, Europe experiences an estimated 300, most of which go unreported because they’re brief, weak or occur in thinly populated areas.

The next time the power goes out, remember: The US has one of the most reliable power systems in the industrialized world. If the outage is routine rather than related to severe weather, relax and prepare to wait it out. In most cases, power will be restored in about 4 hours.

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