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Managing Outage Outrage

How well are we managing perceptions of customers impacted by outages, and perceptions of the strength of our grid?

Let’s consider the customer expectation related issues associated with a recently-reported electric service outage. The outage, which lasted for only half a second, was in the service territory of Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). It occurred at 11:45 PM on Saturday, June 10, 2017. Vandalism at a substation was involved.

PNM equipment automatically restored power “almost instantaneously,” as reported by Meaghan Cavanaugh, PNM Resources’ Senior Corporate Communications Representative, who spoke to Albuquerque’s local TV station, KRQE

Cavanaugh added that the momentary outage affected customers in several areas, including parts of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  

The utility emphasized its intent to assist in the police investigation to capture the vandals and to prosecute such offenders to the fullest extent possible.

A press release on PNM’s website stated that “PNM systems immediately normalized the flow of electricity and there were no serious effects from the interruption. Customers may have experienced blinking lights or had to reset appliances.”

The mention of some appliances needing to be reset stands as a testimony to the wonderfully high expectations utility customers have for reliable electric service.

Customer expectations can dictate reactions to outages, and will vary in some easily-anticipated ways, for example as a function of significant differences in frequency of severe weather events in one region of the country versus another.

New Mexico, for example, had 103 severe weather reports in 2016, involving either high winds, tornados, or hail, putting it in the bottom quartile of the 48 mainland U.S. states.  In comparison, in 2016 the 12 states in the top quartile of our 48 mainland states experienced a total of 10,380 such events, with each of those 12 states averaging 865 such events in that time frame.

Another source of variation in customer expectations is associated with customers in dense urban areas with underground service vs. those in rural areas with overhead service.  Personally, I can testify that it took a while for me to reset my expectations, in the face of a higher rate of outages when I moved from New York City to a northern Atlanta suburb in 1999.  But once my expectations were reset, I had no problem with the slight increase in occasional outages, because I understood the differences between the highly redundant, dense, underground distribution system in Manhattan, versus the more widespread, tree-lined, overhead distribution system in the suburbs of Atlanta (which is still a highly reliable system, especially given the fact that Atlanta has the largest urban forest in the U.S.)

Outage Outrage

In contrast to T&D equipment and service territory related differences in customer expectations, it is of interest to look at how customers feel about electric service outages that are due to acts of vandalism, sabotage, and/or physical or cyber attacks. 

It is clear that these types of outages have a special status, and that highly public responses such as PNM’s, can be appropriate when customers were aware a service interruption occurred.

Regardless of the actual relative frequency and impact of various outage event types, the specter of outages occurring on our grid due to acts of intentional malice have a special status because of fear factors about bigger attacks, and because of the emotions associated with the threat of criminal activity.  As a result, it is important to look at these types of outages from a different perspective when it comes to public policy and customer communication strategies. 

Specifically, utilities need to manage the psychological impact of the so-called “outrage factor,” at least when it comes to their customer relations work, if not also in terms of internal utility decision-making processes.

The “Outrage Factor” Formula:   Risk = Hazard + Outrage

A familiar example of the Outrage Factor would be our tendency to be more afraid of dying in a terrorist attack than in a car accident, even though the latter is thousands of times more likely than the former.

As engineers, we tend to view risks based on the qualitative and quantitative factors quite at odds with how people ordinarily perceive risk.  Engineers, properly, ponder event impacts and their associated statistical likelihoods, when it comes to one type of grid outage event vs. another event type. 

Unfortunately, most utility customers are not conversant in T&D reliability considerations.  They will tend to perceive risks differently, even if “facts based” utility personnel try to downplay unreasonable fears by trying to convince customers based on key statistical likelihoods and impacts associated with various risks faced by our electric grid.

The Outrage Factor accounts for such disparities.  The Outrage Factor states that our general perception of an event’s risk level is based not only on the event’s actual hazard level, but also includes the level of perceived outrage associated with the event.  (We owe the concept of "outrage factor" to the1993 book titled Responding to Community Outrage: Strategies for Effective Risk Communication, authored by Peter Sandman.)

Analysis of Recent Major Electrical Outages

A statistical analysis is provided below, which shows the relative impact on customers of these types of intentionally-induced outages, versus major outages by all other outage event types. 

Analysis of data from the DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability for the first four months of 2017 shows a total of 49 major outages at U.S. electrical utilities.  

 

Of the 49 major outages, there were eleven that were due to vandalism, sabotage, and/or physical attacks.  Those eleven outages impacted 10,001 out of 3,937,417 impacted customers, or a quarter of one percent of the total.

Unsung Heroes

When it comes to reporting and analyzing issues about grid reliability, a final consideration is the obvious fact that while transparency has its place, lines are wisely drawn between where transparency ends and security begins. 

We do not know how many attacks, big or small, have been thwarted behind the scenes.

We wish to thank all the unsung heroes doing more than we may ever know, to protect our grid.

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