Squirrels, snakes and birds keep frying S.C.'s power grid


PELION (AP) - The squirrel's beady eyes beheld a long black power line, a man-made marvel that piqued her curiosity for the last time.

Like dozens of creatures before her, Lexington County's most infamous squirrel did some damage on her way out. Officials later reckoned that in the process of getting electrocuted, the squirrel threw sparks onto the dry ground that set off a 40-acre forest fire near the rural town of Pelion in November 2017.

By the time the blaze was out, officials estimated it had done $11,000 worth of damage, destroying vehicles and bales of hay and knocking out electrical power in the community nearby.

"That goes in the freak accident category for sure," said Doug Wood, a spokesman for the S.C. Forestry Commission.

While the extent of the damage was unusual, the incident of animal-on-grid violence was not all that rare. Animals have caused electrical outages at least 35 times in the past decade in South Carolina, according to local news clippings compiled by the amateur tracking website cybersquirrel1.com and verified by The Post and Courier.

Squirrels were the top offender, causing 19 outages since 2008, followed by snakes (8), birds (5) and unknown animals (3).

The website is managed by an anonymous cybersecurity strategist who has opined in the Christian Science Monitor that animals are a more credible threat to the U.S. electrical grid than human hackers. He takes a cheeky approach to the subject, classifying animals as "agents" in a sophisticated global cyberwarfare operation.

Local announcements about the outages have ranged from the terse to the punny to the decidedly grim.

"This outage was caused by a (very unfortunate) squirrel," the Laurens Electric Cooperative tweeted after a one-hour power outage in the Upstate this February.

"Well, in a nutshell, it was a squirrel," SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower told Cola Daily after a May 2016 outage left 1,700 people in the Columbia area without power.

"Beware the squirrel," warned a May 2016 news item in the Gaffney Ledger after one died in a substation there.

The outages occasionally came in streaks, as when snakes knocked out power to Upstate customers on three separate occasions in May and June 2016.

Others had the appearance of bad omens, like the November 2015 day when a flock of buzzards blew up a transmission tie station in Greenwood County, leaving 4,400 humans without power.

Duke Energy, which serves more than 590,000 customers in the Upstate, takes the problem seriously. In 2016 alone, the company attributed more than 2,000 outages across a six-state service area to animal interference.

The company has installed free-spinning wheels on power lines to deter jumping squirrels and placed guard discs on conductors to keep animals from climbing them. Plexiglas shields cover substations to protect them from torrents of buzzard guano. And fine-meshed fences have been installed to keep snakes away from sensitive equipment.

"It's all about maintaining a balance: keeping the lights on and the animals alive," the company said in an August 2017 press release.

Utility companies aren't the only ones matching wits with kamikaze wildlife. Clemson University's brightest minds have been on the case since the mid-2000s, when maintenance workers discovered that squirrels were weakening tree branches by gnawing on them.

Biologist Greg Yarrow initially proposed enlisting Clemson's air rifle team to practice its marksmanship on the squirrels before he opted for a nonviolent approach: dosing the squirrels with DiazaCon, a wildlife contraceptive.

Doctoral student Kristina Dunn published her findings on the population control method in the fall of 2013, not long after a squirrel infestation in a substation near campus left students in the dark.

The results were promising, if not shocking, and she earned second place for her doctoral research presentation at the Wildlife Society Annual Conference.