In August of 2003, an overheated electric transmission line touched a tree somewhere in Quebec and 50 million people in the Northeast including New York City lost power for days. The same year, a tree falling on a power line in Switzerland triggered a cascade of events that shut off the power in Italy. The whole country. In Brazil in 2009 (60 million people affected), in India in 2012 (600 million people), and around the world, the hits keep on coming, bigger and faster. A new international study looks at the evidence and concludes that it’s going to get worse. Much worse.
The study, written by Hugh Byrd of Lincoln University in the UK and Steve Matthewman of Auckland University in New Zealand, is titled Blackouts: a sociology of electrical power failure. It finds that the “complex critical infrastructures” that make modern life possible are “more fragile than is commonly supposed.” And, “in the case of electrical power, they are getting frailer.”
One of the major reasons the systems are getting more frail, the study says, is that they are very, very old. About three quarters of US transmission lines, transformers, circuit breakers and power plants are more than 25 years old. In the past 30 years, while demand for electricity has increased by 25 per cent, investment in power transmission lines, and in research and development, has declined (the latter by nearly 80 per cent). The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that the only way to keep the lights on past 2020 (2014 in Texas) is to invest 1.5 billion dollars in electrical infrastructure. They said that four years ago. Still waiting.
Bearing down on this creaky machine are two tsunamis — one of increasing demand, one of faltering supply.
One the demand side, what the authors call the “addiction” to air conditioning is driving an awesome increase in demand for electricity, especially among the newly affluent middle classes of China and India. In the US, where the market has already grown, air conditioning uses 20 per cent of electricity going to homes, and 13 per cent of industrial power, an amount equal to the electric power consumption of the continent of Africa. Another study called addiction to air conditioning as America’s “least noticed and most pervasive (current) epidemic.”
The study also worries about the effect of conversion to electric cars. Replacing the current fleet of private cars with electric models would add to the demand for electricity in this country an amount double that of all air conditioning. (Oddly, the authors do not even mention the Internet, whose data centers and infrastructure are thought to be consuming ten per cent of America’s electricity right now.)
The supply-side picture is equally bleak. The depletion of fossil fuels continues apace, already constraining electric generation in many countries. Renewables, while helpful, do not constitute an answer: some of the worst current supply problems are being caused by lack of water for hydroelectric generators. Wind and solar generation introduce variability into a vast system whose complexities are almost beyond comprehension as it is.
In all of this, global climate change acts as a threat multiplier, with heat that increases air conditioner use, storms that destroy infrastructure, droughts that shut down not only hydroelectric plants, but fossil-fuel and nuclear plants, all of which require massive amounts of water for cooling.
In short, say the authors of Blackouts — get used to them.
To understand this situation is to realize that the only “smart” grid is no grid at all. The only people who are going to enjoy secure electricity in the future are the people that make their own from the renewable resources of the place where they live. Getting off the grid is no longer an edgy, trendy thing to do; it’s the equivalent of getting off the Titanic.