Jacksonville Narrowly Avoids Major Power Outage from Balloons

By Jeremy Coumbes on December 29, 2023 at 10:50am

Lineman use extension prongs to pry Mylar balloons loose from high voltage overhead power lines. File photo courtesy Ameren Illinois

Ameren Illinois Communication Director Brian Bretch says Jacksonville had what they call a near miss after he received a report of some Mylar balloons that were caught up in a major electric service line the week of December 15th.

I had received a call from one of the operations folks there in Jacksonville mentioning that a cluster was entangled into some of our sub-transmission power lines. The sub-transmission power lines are the higher voltage lines, which means they serve more customers.

They were getting ready to call local officials in the area and maybe even some schools because we were going to have to take a fairly significant power outage in order to safely remove the balloons from the power lines.”

Bretch says when mylar balloons come in contact with power lines and then explode, the material acts like chewing gum in a child’s hair. “It melts into our system and it becomes like that sticky gum. So we have to actually de-energize the lines so our linemen can get up into the air and remove all that metallic material. Otherwise, if they don’t, when the power is restored, that metallic property can cause the electricity to arc and cause flickering lights and other issues as well as causing significant damage to electric systems.

So believe it or not, it does pose a real threat to our electric system. We thankfully avoided an outage when the wind blew and blew the balloons out of the lines in Jacksonville. But then we kind of waited around nervously to see if they ended up in another community and would cause the same issue.”

Bretch says power outages related to balloons becoming entangled in power lines happens more often than you would think. “Since 2018 we’ve had more than sixty Mylar balloon-related outages along our system, so just keep that in mind. That is from people releasing those balloons in celebration. The rubber balloons don’t do any damage to our system other than getting caught up, but it’s the same thing. We have to go up in the air and de-energize an area to remove them.”

Earlier this year, the state of California passed legislation calling for a complete ban on Mylar balloons by 2031 due to the risk of sparks from power line entanglements causing wildfires and also being harmful to wildlife.

Bretch says you should take some precautions when handling balloons, by making sure they are attached to a weight so they can’t float away and to reconsider any celebration plans that call for releasing balloons free into the air, and deflating any balloons once the celebration is over.

Bretch says if you see a cluster of balloons entangled in a set of power lines, you should call and report it to Ameren at 800-755-5000 so a qualified lineman can remove them safely.