Study: Lights Going Out All Over the World

New York City, August 2003. (Photo by (!)

New York City, August 2003. (Photo by (!)

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.

[See also: India Blackout Foreshadows US Event, Texas Teeters on Blackout’s Edge]

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4 Responses to Study: Lights Going Out All Over the World

  1. colinc says:

    At long last someone finally starts nibbling at the crux of the cascade of failures about to beset life on this planet so kudos to you, Tom. But it is, in point of fact, just a “nibble.” Now, what you and countless others need do is “think through” the conditions you’ve described above to their merely obvious(!?) ramifications. Then you may see that this sixth extinction event will make all the preceding ones pale in comparison and that the precipitating species is guaranteed to be no more. Since you’ve been “bold” enough to scratch the surface, consider the following. What “systems” absolutely require and rely on an uninterrupted supply of electricity? Now repeat that query but substitute the word “water” (in “manageable” amounts) for “electricity.” How many such systems exist around the planet and are in imminent peril of losing one or both requirements? Think beyond nuclear “power-plants” (or reactors, generally), any 5th grader with half a brain could guess that one. Make no mistake, they are significant but, like the meteor at Chicxulub 65 million years ago, they’ll only wipe out the remnants. Look “more closelier.” I’m sure you’re old enough to remember the old advertising slogan, “Better living through chemistry,” AND what happened in Bhopal, India. Moreover, does the expression “Biohazard Level 4” stimulate any thoughts? Now, couple those with the most terrifying acronym of all time… JITD. If you are acknowledging the “implications,” as I have, I’ll let you know a little secret. I get the widest glass I have and pour 3 fingers of bourbon and, when that is drained, I do it again.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Wow. After editing 16 books on the earth sciences (Time-Life Books), after six years writing the annual Environmental Quality Index (National Wildlife Magazine), two books of my own on the impending crash and five years of Daily Impact entries, I’m nibbling? Finally? Well, okay, let’s strive on.

      One of the things you see when you get past the “merely obvious” is that all the forecasts of the impacts of climate change, industrial agriculture, globalization, water shortages and so on have been wrong. Not the way the money argues, the other way. Scientific predictions of climate change, for example, have always fallen far short of the speed and severity of its actual effects. Now some scientists are going the other way and predicting the extinction of everything. Let us not lose our capacity for skepticism.

      Two things we humans almost always over-estimate: the amount of harm we’re doing to natural systems; and the ability of natural systems to recover when we stop.

      So don’t give in to despair. Better, learn to make you own bourbon. Which is hard, so better yet switch to vodka, which is also an excellent, renewable fuel.

  2. Denis Frith says:

    colinc, how do we get governments and the powerful in society to understand the reality you soundly spell out. Society needs a lead on how to power down.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Not going to happen as long as money has a stranglehold on government, and society continues to worship money. To paraphrase: you can’t convince someone of something that his wealth requires him not to believe. We’ve reached the point where a crash is not only the consequence of what we’re doing, but the only possible cure. You ad I need to power down so we don’t go off the cliff with Society.