Society is heavily dependent on a reliable electric supply; all infrastructure systems depend on electricity to operate. When the electric system fails, the impacts can be catastrophic (food spoilage, inoperable medical devices, lack of access to water, etc.). The social impacts, defined as the direct and indirect impacts on people, of power outages must be explored as the likelihood of power outages and blackouts are increasing. However, compared to other hazards, such as heat and flooding, the knowledge base on the impacts of power outages is relatively small. The purpose of this thesis is to identify what is currently known about the social impacts of power outages, identify where gaps in the literature exist, and deploy a survey to explore power outage experiences at the household level. This thesis is comprised of two chapters, a systematic literature review on the current knowledge of the social impacts of power outages and a multi-city survey focused on power outage experiences.
The first chapter comprised of a systematic literature review using a combined search of in Scopus which returned 762 candidate articles were identified that potentially explored the social impacts of power outages. However, after multiple filtering criteria were applied, only 45 articles met all criteria. Four themes were used to classify the literature, not exclusively, including modeling, social, technical, and other. Only papers that were classified as “social” - meaning they observed how people were affected by a power outage - or in combination with other categories were used within the review.
From the literature, populations of concern were identified, including minority demographics - specifically Blacks or African Americans, children, elderly, and rural populations. The most commonly reported health concerns were from those that rely on medical devices for chronic conditions and unsafe generator practices. Criminal activity was also reported to increase during prolonged power outages and can be mitigated by consistent messaging on where to receive assistance and when power will be restored. Providing financial assistance and resources such as food and water can reduce the crime rate temporarily, but the crime rate can be expected to increase once the relief expires. Authorities should expect looting to occur, especially in poorer areas, during prolonged power outages. Gaps in the literature were identified and future directions for research were provided.
The second chapter consists of a multi-city survey that targeted three major cities across the United States (Detroit, MI; Miami, FL; and Phoenix, AZ). The survey was disseminated through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and hosted by Qualtrics. 896 participants from the three cities qualified to complete the full version of the survey. Three criteria had to be met for participants to complete the full survey including residing in one of the three target cities, living at their primary address for a majority of the year, and indicate they had experienced a power outage within the last five years.
Participants were asked questions regarding the number of outages experienced in the last five years, the length of their most recent and longest outage experienced, if they owned a generator, how they managed their longest power outage, if participants or anyone in their household relies on a medical device, the financial burden their power outage caused, and standard demographic- and income-related questions. Race was a significant variable that influenced the outage duration length but not frequency in Phoenix and Detroit. Income was not a significant variable associated with experiencing greater economic impacts, such as having thrown food away because of an outage and not receiving help during the longest outage. Additional assessments similar to this survey are needed to better understand household power outage experiences.
Findings from this thesis demonstrate traditional metrics used in vulnerability indices were not indicative of who experienced the greatest effects of power outages. Additionally, other factors that are not included in these indices, such as owning adaptive resources including medical devices and generators in Phoenix and Detroit, are factors in reducing negative outcomes. More research is needed on this topic to indicate which populations are more likely to experience factors that can influence positive or negative outage outcomes.