HAP Blog

Part One: What to Do When the Power Goes Out

Faults in our electrical grid leave us vulnerable to energy emergencies

June 15, 2022

If your power plan isn’t ready for the summer, I’m here to help you out.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) recently released an assessment of North America’s electrical grid. The report highlighted our energy vulnerabilities, especially during the summer months. The report gives another reason to think about our preparedness and get ready.

The overall gist: The National Weather Service is predicting an above-normal temperature outlook for much of the Midwest and West Coast parts of the county along with an above-normal fire risk for U.S. Southern Central states, Northern California, and Oregon, which could result in an active fire season. This could increase demand on our energy infrastructure and challenge our existing systems.

These conditions, along with capacity shortfalls, are concerning, and we only have to look to a few recent events to understand why. A key transmission line between Midwestern and southern systems, damaged during a tornado during December 2021, has been out of service and isn’t expected to be back on-line until the end of June 2022. Additionally, a lower hydroelectric output has been exacerbated by drought and below-normal winter snowpack. Drought conditions in other regions result in lower water levels and less capability to cool thermal generators.

All these things point to the importance of preparedness. In this two-part series, we’ll look at how you can be ready for power outages and other energy concerns during the summer months.

How power outages affect health

While the report warned of elevated risks for other regions, the commonwealth and neighboring states also are vulnerable. The potential for cyberattacks on our system is quite real, and these concerns only grow when the power goes out. Imagine a cyberattack occurring during an intense and prolonged heatwave. Severe weather like tornados and hurricanes also can cause outages and prolong disruptions.

A historical analysis of our power grid shows additional weaknesses. During 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused massive outages. During August 2003, an overgrown tree outside of Cleveland came in contact with a power line. This is a very common issue, but in this instance, the result was a cascading power failure that affected an estimated 50 million people in the Northeast U.S., including parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and other states. This is still one of the largest outages in North America. Some went without power for days. Researchers found that nearly 100 deaths could be associated with the blackout.

We know that outages can affect patients. This can include stress triggering heart attacks, carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, and dehydration concerns. Lack of power can result in the stoppage of public transportation, the closures of pharmacies, and the inability to use home health equipment like oxygen concentration machines.

In other words, it’s a big deal when the power goes out.

What can you do to prepare?

Our potential energy problems should spur your emergency preparedness instincts. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Health care officials should be in contact with county and regional emergency management officials to review plans and discuss capabilities and limitations.
  • Have cooling and hydration stations been identified?
  • Have back up battery banks and supplies ready. Advancement in back up battery packs have come quite far from just a few years ago, and some can power small appliances. While these backup energy sources come with a hefty price tag, they’re worth it when needed.
  • Be vigilant during above-normal summer conditions. Monitor outages.
  • These events will affect staff, their families, and their loved ones. Make sure they’re aware of policies and procedures. Encourage self-preparedness before, during, and after an outage.

As always, your planning will help during your time of crisis. So now is the time to plan and prepare, and you’ll be ready if the lights go out. Next month, we’ll delve into your communications strategies, generator-preparedness, and how emergency department utilization changes during power outages.

For questions or additional insights, contact meor another member of HAP’s emergency management team.

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