Much of Detroit went “gentle into that good night” this week, its entire municipal power grid succumbing to age, infirmity and neglect. It was no big surprise, Detroit’s public buildings (schools, fire and police stations, courts, a hospital, etc.) and traffic signals went dark in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Nor would it have surprised the readers of a recent study [“The Technology and Sociology of Power (Failure)”] whose authors concluded that “Blackouts are dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity, and as urban areas become more compact, with greater consequences.”
The world, they said, should “prepare for the prospect of coping without electricity as instances of complete power failure become increasingly common.”
It would be a mistake to ascribe Detroit’s woes to the fact that it is insolvent, decrepit, blighted and without the resources to begin healing itself. That description applies to the rest of the country as well, especially where the electric grid is concerned. The American Society of Civil Engineers has been complaining about the deteriorating power grid for years, noting that the number of significant power outages around the country rose from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011. Small wonder when you reflect that a network cannot be stronger than its weakest part, and parts of the grid still in use were installed in the 1880s. Most of it was built shortly after World War II.
The problem is just as bad in Europe. Three years ago the insurance company Allianz declared:
“The power blackout risk is generally underestimated. Blackouts during the last ten years in Europe and Northern America have demonstrated an increasing likelihood of supra-regional and long-lasting blackouts including high economical losses. Due to the increasing interconnectedness in combination with rather old infrastructure we expect this risk to increase in both frequency and severity.”
We’re used to hearing about massive blackouts in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil, South Africa and the like, and we often react to them with a feeling of gratitude that we don’t live in a Third World country where such things are common.
For an attitude adjustment, read the official report of how the U.S. power industry got through last January during the coldest winter temperatures in nearly two decades. (Better yet, read about it; as someone who tried to comprehend the official report on the titanic Northeast power failure of 2003, I can tell you it can be a hard slog.) Managing the grid requires maintaining a precise balance between supply and demand, both of which change from nanosecond to nanosecond, with the changes rippling across the country at the speed of light. (There are several interconnected grids covering the U.S. and Canada, but let’s not get lost in the weeds.)
The story of the management of the 2014 cold snap is a nailbiter, as managers are confronted with sudden demands as millions of people tried to stay warm; sudden equipment failures such as generators that were too cold to start when called on; and shortages of fuel, both natural gas and oil, as both supplies and supply lines proved inadequate to the task. As it turned out saving the system from blackout required cutting off a relatively few customers and reducing voltage only slightly, for a short time. But it was a very close thing.
Paying lip service to “renewable energy” by cramming the output of solar panels and wind turbines into the strings and sticks that constitute the grid is increasing the threat of blackouts, according to the newest report on it. That speed-of-light balancing act is made even more difficult by sources that vary their output according to the time of day, the passing of a cloud or the gusting of the wind. The proper application for renewable energy is as distributed energy, which mean making your energy where you use it and not trying to move it across the country first.
All these concerns continue to worsen without catching the attention of the folks who pretend to govern this country. So there will be more Detroits in our future. It is not only the Third World, but the whole world, that should “prepare for the prospect of coping without electricity.”