Squirrel Power: Why Rodents May Pose a Bigger Threat to Austin's Power Grid Than Hackers

Apr 13, 2016

You might have heard warnings about the potential for malicious computer hackers to sabotage infrastructure like electric utilities.

Turns out, there may be a bigger threat: squirrels.


Thanks to pop culture and politics, one might suspect the threat of hackers taking down our power grid is all but imminent. President Obama has addressed the issue extensively, and National Geographic even dedicated a feature-length movie to the possibility – the much-tweeted about 2013 movie “American Blackout.” But, the next time you see or hear somebody freaking out about hackers, maybe you should bring up squirrels.

In Austin and elsewhere, acorn-packing squirrels have a higher chance of creating a serious power outage than a malware-peddling malcontent.

If a squirrel runs across two different power lines at the same time or touches both a power line and a tree, not only is the poor little squirrel toast, there’s a good chance that the power line is as well.

Carlos Cordova, a spokesperson for Austin Energy, says squirrels accounted for or contributed to roughly 400 power outages in Austin last year – a span of time in which hackers caused zero global power outages.

The proliferation of squirrel-related outages has even inspired a data journalist to tabulate the phenomenon.

The anonymous observer known as “Cyber Squirrel 1” runs a website and a Twitter account that documents outages accredited to squirrels and other critters. He’s taken on the persona of the chief propaganda minister of the squirrel army. They’ve had 702 successful power outage operations worldwide. The interactive map is a silly way to transmit a serious message.

“There is some risk to the electric grid from cyber attack, of course, there is a small amount of risk there,” he says. “But the amount of hype and fear and uncertainty and doubt that is surrounding that risk is way out of proportion to the actual risk.”

Cordova says he’s constantly thinking about threats to the power grid. “There’s animals on the power lines like squirrels that can cause problems, and then there’s humans sitting in their rooms in their pajamas in cyber space going through our lines over the web that can also create problems,” he says. “We diligently protect against both.”

Cyber Squirrel 1 says that’s a good thing. But, just like Y2K or any other existential threat associated with technology, the doomsday rhetoric can get a little conflated sometimes.