Update on GCCI Post #4: Grid Outage Chart

Update: Evan Mills, apparently one author of the analysis, responds and I respond back.

Yesterday I called into question the interpretation of this chart from the GCCI report where the report used electrical grid outages as a proxy for severe weather frequency:


I hypothesized:

This chart screams one thing at me:  Basis change.  Somehow, the basis for the data is changing in the period.  Either reporting has been increased, or definitions have changed, or there is something about the grid that makes it more sensitive to weather, or whatever  (this is a problem in tornado charts, as improving detection technologies seem to create an upward incidence trend in smaller tornadoes where one probably does not exist).   But there is NO WAY the weather is changing this fast, and readers should treat this whole report as a pile of garbage if it is written by people who uncritically accept this chart.

I had contacted John Makins of the EIA who owns this data set yesterday, but I was too late to catch him in the office.  He was nice enough to call me today.

He said that there may be an underlying upward trend out there (particularly in thunderstorms) but that most of the increase in this chart is from improvements in data gathering.  In 1997, the EIA (and Makins himself) took over the compilation of this data, which had previously been haphazard, and made a big push to get all utilities to report as required.  They made a second change and push for reporting in 2001, and again in 2007/2008.  He told me that most of this slope is due to better reporting, and not necessarily any underlying trend.   In fact, he said there still is some under-reporting by smaller utilities he wants to improve so that the graph will likely go higher in the future.

Further, it is important to understand the nature of this data.  The vast majority of weather disturbances are not reported to the EIA.  If the disturbance or outage remains local with no impact on any of the national grids, then it does not need to be reported.  Because of this definitional issue, reported incidents can also change over time due to the nature of the national grid.  For example, as usage of the national grid changes or gets closer to capacity, local disturbances might cascade to national issues where they would not have done so 20 years ago.  Or vice versa – better grid management technologies might keep problems local that would have cascaded regionally or nationally before.  Either of these would drive trends in this data that have no relation to underlying weather patterns.

At the end of the day, this disturbance data is not a good proxy for severe weather.  And I am left wondering at this whole “peer-reviewed science” thing, where errors like this pass into publication of major reports — an error that an amateur like myself can identify with one phone call to the guy listed by this data set on the web site.  Forget peer review, this isn’t even good basic editorial control  (apparently no one who compiled the report called Makins, and he was surprised today at the number of calls he was suddenly getting).

Postscript: Makins was kind enough to suggest some other data bases that might show what he believes to be a real increase in thunderstorm disturbances of electrical distribution grids.  He suggested that a number of state PUC’s keep such data, including the California PUC under their reliability section.  I will check those out, though it is hard to infer global climate trends from one state.

14 thoughts on “Update on GCCI Post #4: Grid Outage Chart”

  1. Great piece of investigative work. So is Makins willing to come out and publicly state that the data he collects does not support the claims made in the GCCI report?

  2. Just curious, doesn’t the inset chart show that the ratio of “weather related” versus “non weather related” has changed dramatically?

    This ratio should be independent of the overall rate of reporting. Do you really have evidence to the contrary?

    Also, note that it is the “windstorm, hurricane, severe storm” category which is showing the most increase over time. We have dramatically altered how IR is being absorbed and emitted at different levels of the atmosphere. Dismissing a possible connection between these two observations is premature.

  3. The impact of severe weather on the grid has been of concern for several years now. I retired at the very beginning of 2007 and had been teaching power plant emergency procedures related to grid upsets for quite a while before that. In fact, in the mid 90s, I made a 30 minute video on Hurricane Andrew that I incorporated into the training. Around 2000, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operation issued a Significant Operating Experience Report on the grid impact of weather related upsets and how that had the potential for affecting operation of nuclear power plants.

    Another issue is the declining health of the electrical infrastructure, which makes it more susceptible to weather-related upsets.

    Interestingly, from 4 AM to 7 AM on August 13, 2003, I was doing “loss of offsite power” training in the simulator.

    That was the day of the great northeast power blackout. Our plant in Arkansas saw voltage fluctuations from that weather related massive grid upset.

    On a final note, that this information was used in this report this way makes me just a little bit angry. If it not just sloppy, inattention to detail, then it a deliberate misrepresentation of the truth.

    Thanks for looking into this and for sharing it.

  4. Also, don’t forget about the difference in storm preparedness in regions around the country. For example, if certain areas of the country do not trim trees around power lines properly you could theoretically have more outages. Certain utilities may not maintain as well as they should which probably shows nothing more that lack of care and not increased storm activity.

    A final thought, over the last 20 years, more and more people are moving out away from urban areas causing larger and longer stretches of lines to be exposed to the elements as opposed to years past.

  5. “We have dramatically altered how IR is being absorbed and emitted at different levels of the atmosphere.”

    I don’t think that’s been reliably demonstrated. Given the relatively low abundance of CO2, and it’s fairly low IR absorption, there is hot been a dramatic alteration. Adding in the effect from other “greenhouse gases” still leaves any effect fairly low.

  6. Morris,

    “We have dramatically altered how IR is being absorbed and emitted at different levels of the atmosphere.”


    I think you are trying to say the AMOUNT of IR being absorbed and reemitted??

    I don’t believe we can change the physics involved.


    did your babysitter teach you that phrase and show you how to type it in???

    If not, please explain how it applies to this post.

  7. Warren, I am pretty sure you misspelled the EIA guy’s last name. According to the contact list on the EIA web site, it is Makens.

  8. «Was he pleased or upset at the use of his data this way?»

    This is a critical question. Pielke Jr publicly and proactively used the word “misrepresentation” with regard to the way his own data was used by GCCI.

    What does Makins say?

  9. I am curious how power outages can be a reliable source of weather information. Are the outages that they are trying to track, labeled as under reporting in the article, at the smaller utilities all weather related? What about a pole getting hit, a squirrel jumping a high voltage primary or a snake in a transformer? I work for a major retailer and receive all power outage reports for over 1000 stores in 49 states. The snake and squirrel were real examples just last week. Sure we have outages for weather, but most times it is a primary fuse, a tree falling, an underground line cut, etc. I am not sure how this can be a serious way to track weather or global warming, of course most of the methods to track global warming are not real anyway. Yes my truck is melting the ice caps, on Mars. It is called the the sun and natural cycles.

  10. He said that there may be an underlying upward trend out there (particularly in thunderstorms) …

    Okay, let’s take that as stipulated: there has been an increase in convective weather activity as a consequence of GHG. Indeed, that would seem to be a deductive consequence of AGW theory.

    Famously, GCMs predict climate, not weather. Yet convective activity is, by definition, weather. Further, convection, particularly when it takes the form of thunderstorms, takes huge amounts of warm air and hurls it towards the stratosphere, where there is nearly a direct radiation path to space.

    In other words, presuming the climate is warming, the humidity driven increase in convection represents significant negative feedback.

    (Full disclosure: I am not a meteorologist. However, as a professional pilot, I routinely get an up close and personal view of how much energy thunderstorms contain; sometimes so much that they go through the tropopause.)

  11. Evan Mills, who is cited in the report as the source for the graph has a reply entitled “Grid Disruptions
    Response to factual errors in the Climate Skeptic blog about the report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the US”


    “The blogger (a self-admitted “amateur”) created a straw man argument by asserting that the chart was presented as evidence of global climate change and was not verified with the primary source. The blog’s errors have been propagated to other web sites without further fact checking or due diligence.”

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