Rolling blackouts are a fact of life for many people. They can happen for various reasons, from spikes in demand to equipment failure, and can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours or even days.
While there’s not much you can do to prevent them from happening, there are steps you can take to make sure you’re prepared for when they do. In this post, we’ll discuss what rolling blackouts are, how to prepare for them, and what to do during and after one occurs. We will also give you some energy conservation tips to help prevent future outages.
What are rolling blackouts?
Rolling blackouts are controlled interruptions of electrical supply used to prevent overloading of the power grid. When electricity demand is high and exceeds the amount of power available, utility companies use rolling blackouts as a last-resort measure to prevent widespread blackouts.
How do rolling blackouts work? Power plants generate electricity, which is then transmitted across high-voltage power lines to substations. From there, it goes to lower voltage power lines that feed our homes and businesses.
The grid is designed to meet average electricity demand over time. But there are times when demand spikes, such as during a summer heat wave when everyone runs their air conditioners. Rolling blackouts can happen if the grid doesn’t have enough power to meet this peak demand.
During a rolling blackout, utility companies will interrupt service to selected areas for a brief period of time. This interruption helps reduce the overall demand on the power grid and prevents the system from being overloaded. Rolling blackouts are also planned to protect sensitive areas, such as hospitals, from power loss.
While rolling blackouts are inconvenient, they are preferable to having the entire power grid collapse, which could cause widespread blackouts that could last for days or even weeks.
Why do rolling blackouts happen?
Several factors can contribute to rolling blackouts. One is the capacity of the power grid. As electricity needs increase, some power plants and grids experience a supply and demand problem: their historical supply no longer meets the demand. Another is the age of the power grid since the older infrastructure is more likely to fail.
A utility company may also lack the coal or natural gas needed to produce electricity. Several European countries face possible power outages after Russia reduced or eliminated their natural gas exports in 2022.
And finally, rolling blackouts can be in response to a public safety threat. In high-risk fire areas, utilities may shut off power to prevent the electric system from becoming a source of ignition.
How long do rolling blackouts last?
The length of a rolling blackout depends on the severity of the supply shortfall and the persistence of peak demand. Most utilities try to limit a rotating outage to a specific area for 1 hour.
An exception is when power is shut off in response to high-risk conditions for a wildfire. These outages last until the risk has passed, which could be several hours or days.
How do I prepare for a rolling blackout?
While California and Texas have become notorious for power outages, you should be prepared for one no matter where you live. As climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather conditions, including severe storms, wildfires, and drought, more areas will find themselves without power. And while it is wise to prepare for a short-term outage, now is also the time to prepare for a long-term power outage.
Because rolling blackouts are often planned, sign up for alerts from your utility company so you won’t be caught by surprise. Most companies have information about rotating outages on their website, including how to receive alerts. You may need a copy of your bill to find your rotating group or know your address.
If your utility company doesn’t provide alerts, monitor their social media accounts and local news stations during extreme weather events. Most utilities will alert local news stations when they predict rolling blackouts may be necessary.
If you or a family member relies on life-saving equipment, apply with your utility company to be recognized as a critical care customer. While most utilities cannot guarantee your power won’t be shut off, they may be able to reduce the length of the outage.
Checklist for Before an Outage
Do the following weeks or months before an outage:
- Inventory any electrical devices you rely on daily and consider backup and non-power alternatives for the following:
- Communication–if you do not have a landline in your home, have a backup method for charging your cell phone
- Medical devices or refrigerated medicine
- Garage doors
- Store these essentials together so they are easy to locate
- Portable radio
- Consider how you might cool or heat your home or have a plan to evacuate to a nearby shelter
- Stock your pantry with non-perishable food that does not require cooking
Checklist for When an Outage is Imminent
Do the following if a power outage is possible within a few hours:
- Charge any devices you may need, such as cell phone or laptop
- Charge any portable chargers for your devices
- Fill bottles with water and put them into the freezer to help keep food cold during an outage
- Conserve energy to reduce strain on the electrical grid (more about this below)
What should I do during a rolling blackout?
Although rolling blackouts are usually brief, they can be disruptive and inconvenient. And depending on the time of year they occur, they can be dangerous. Families with at-risk members, such as infants, toddlers, the elderly, or those with certain medical conditions, should know of nearby safe spaces where they can keep cool or warm. Many cities will provide shelter at libraries or other cooling centers. If you must leave your home or office during an outage, use extreme care when driving since traffic lights may not be working.
If you are staying at home, do the following during an outage:
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, especially during hot weather
- Dress in weather-appropriate clothing
- Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep food cold or frozen
- Monitor temperatures in your refrigerator and freezer with a thermometer and discard food if your refrigerator gets above 40 degrees Fahrenheit
- Do not use a gas stove to heat your home
- Only use a generator outdoors and away from windows
- Turn off or unplug appliances to prevent damage from electrical surges
- Turn off the air conditioning to avoid straining the grid when power is restored
- Check on family members and neighbors
What should I do after a rolling blackout?
Because these power outages are short-term and utilities prioritize critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants, you should not need to worry about access to potable water after an outage. However, you should check the food in your fridge and discard any food that has been stored at 40 degrees or higher for two hours or more or with an unusual odor, color, or texture.
How can I prevent rolling blackouts?
While no single solution will prevent all future outages, several steps can be taken to minimize their occurrence.
Now is the time to encourage your city, state, or energy provider to improve the power grid’s capacity to balance supply and demand. You should also request your energy supplier diversify its energy sources and incorporate more renewable energy. Natural gas facilities have trouble performing in high heat, while solar energy won’t fail during hot sunny days. Unless they incorporate more renewable energy into their portfolio, states like California and Texas will experience more outages as record-setting summer temperatures increase.
As more homes and businesses install solar panels, consumers will become energy generators and the electric grid will become decentralized. A decentralized grid will reduce demand on existing infrastructure, including power plants and transmission lines.
While the above long-term solutions are important to solving the problem, you can also contribute to preventing rolling power outages in your area by conserving the amount of electricity you use. Not only does conserving energy reduce the strain on the electrical grid, but it will help you save money.
Here are a few energy-saving tips for using less electricity:
- Perform energy-demanding tasks, such as laundry and running the dishwasher, during off-peak hours
- Don’t use the oven during the heat of the day
- Use small countertop appliances, such as a toaster oven or slow cooker, to prepare meals
- If you must run the air conditioner, use a programmable thermostat and turn the temperature up a few degrees
- Use ceiling fans and standing fans to circulate air
- Unplug appliances and electronics when you’re not using them
- Adjust your fridge and freezer settings according to the manufacturer’s recommendations
- Take steps to improve your home’s energy efficiency:
- Weatherize around doors and windows
- Replace traditional bulbs with LED light bulbs
- Replace windows with double- or triple-paned windows
- Replace windows with dynamic glass (also known as smart glass)
- Add draperies with white plastic backings to reduce heat gains by 33% or insulated cellular shades for even more protection from extreme temperatures
- Install exterior window treatments such as shutters and shades, awnings, or solar window screens
- Replace your roof with terra-cotta and ceramic tiles, concrete tiles and slab roofs, metal roofs, or green or “living” roofs
- Install solar panels to eliminate your dependency on the power grid
Rolling blackouts are a reality in areas with high demand and limited supply. But you can take steps to prepare for them and prevent them from happening. Never forget that during an outage, your priority is to stay safe. And when it comes to future outages, work with your community to encourage the development of renewable energy sources and improved grid capacity. You can also take measures to improve your home’s energy efficiency. By working together, we can prevent power outages from becoming a regular occurrence.