Rage Against the Dying of the Lights

The lights went out in Hoboken in 2012. They’re going out more often, for longer, in more places. Are you ready? (Photo by Alec Perkins/Flickr)

The lights went out in Hoboken in 2012. They’re going out more often, for longer, in more places. Are you ready? (Photo by Alec Perkins/Flickr)

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.”

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12 Responses to Rage Against the Dying of the Lights

  1. venuspluto67 says:

    This would certainly impact manufacturing, as factories get their power from the electrical grid, right? Or do modern factories have independent power sources of their own? I’m asking because that’s something about which I’ve long wondered.

    The grid probably does have components from the final decades of the nineteenth century, but my understanding is that electrical power didn’t really become a near-universal phenomenon in major US cities until the dawn of the twentieth century. Perhaps that assumption is wrong, as I certainly don’t claim to be any sort of expert about modern use of electricity.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for another superb analytical piece, Mr. Lewis.

    Another, ever-growing risk to the grid (and humans) besides age, is the increasing concentration of both methane and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere which is causing explosions of homes, vehicles and large and small underground ones involving buried electrical equipment. Hydrogen sulfide is corrosive (even to concrete and metal) and reacts to both electrified copper and rust in a spark, and in the presence of methane a fire would result that would appear to involve an accelerant.

    Every day these types of incidents occur
    (examples from JJFH: http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/)

    2014-12-03 – School bus bursts into flame at 4:15 AM while parked in bus barn, fire spreads to other buses, in Oklahoma City (Oklahoma), school canceled

    Quote: “The fire burned out one bus and damaged four others. Fire crews put the flames out quickly, but had problems getting into the facility because the electric panel for the gate also caught on fire.”

    Note: So a bus burst into flame AND the electric panel for the gate also burst into flame. That is VERY much like an event where an SUV burst into flame at one home and at the same time a dimmer switch burst into flame on the home next door, at 3:30 AM, in Stuttgart (Arkansas), mentioned in the 2013-02-05 update. The wee hours are when the atmosphere cools and contracts, which will push any methane and/or hydrogen sulfide in the air above closer to the ground, making fires, explosions and animals and people sickening or dying more common during those hours…

    2014-12-03 – Home obliterated by explosion and fire in Regina Beach, Saskatchewan (Canada), other homes damaged, nobody there

    2014-12-03 – Underground electrical explosion and fire closes dental school in Birmingham (Alabama)

    Quote: “Earlier this morning, UAB told ABC 33/40 the problem was suspected to be with a transformer under the sidewalk near the School of Dentistry exploded, causing a lot of smoke.”

    Quote: “There have been no reports of injuries, but the area was filled with smoke and a strange smell, according to reports.”

    2014-12-03 – Man, 29, drops dead before 5:30 AM while riding bicycle on coastal Big Pine Key

    We’re facing extinction through multiple vectors, there’s no question about it.

    i’m of the opinion that everyone will know “it’s over” by 2019, but sincerely hope to be as wrong as anyone else trying to predict the big step down to the Stone Age.

  3. Apneaman says:


    I am a retired Boilermaker (field). A lot of heavy industry generates their own electricity by having their own power and recovery boilers built and cogen plants and heat exchangers too. The big problem is the distribution system (grid). Many of these industries are located well away from population centers and even though many are hooked to the grid it is a one way street (in). Once the system unravels enough getting fuel to fire the boilers will be a problem too. With effort some places will be able to utilize some of this industry power generation that is close to urban areas and tie it to a local grid, but it will be spotty. It is just a matter of time until 24/7 on demand electricity goes away in N America. It will be especially harsh in areas of the U.S. where maintenance has been band aided since the Regan years. I expect we will see sacrifice zones.

    • venuspluto67 says:

      Thanks for the educational reply. I wasn’t necessarily of the mind that factories could supply power to all of us with their particular generating capacity when the rest of the grid starts going down, because this capacity was designed for a very particular use. I was mostly just curious if the energy that factories use (or such factories as we have remaining after the deindustrialization of the past thirty years) comes from the same grid we use to power our lights and computers and refrigerators at home, or if factories make their own power for what they do. I appreciate you answering that question for me. :-)

  4. Surly1 says:

    Aging electrical infrastructure. “Sacrifice zones.” Guess detroit is the first, with the blame laid at the feet or workers who deferred part of their compensation to put in pension funds, which they eventually had the gall to want to collect.
    We are ALL soon Detroit.

  5. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Singapore (where I now live) is a very small place (compared to most American cities anyway), so I guess maintaining everything here will be easier and less costly, and the lights will keep on a little while longer… Just a little while longer…

    You know, I read before that a Taoist monk once said to British scientist and sinologist Joseph Needham (1900 ~ 1995) (or to someone who then said it to Needham): People say the world is moving forward while we are going backward, but the truth is that WE are the ones moving forward and it’s the world that’s going backward. :D

  6. Tom says:

    interesting piece here:


    Graph of the Day: Number of natural disasters, 1900-2012

    More frequent and intense environmental disasters are destroying lives, livelihoods, physical infrastructure and fragile ecosystems. They can impair human capabilities and threaten human development in all countries— especially in the poorest and most vulnerable. Higher income and socioeconomic status are associated with greater ability to absorb losses and higher resilience. Women, people with disabilities and racial and ethnic minorities may face greater barriers to recovering from disasters, partly because they have fewer personal assets and unequal access to support. Children, women and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

    Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. Between 1901 and 1910 there were 82 recorded disasters, but between 2003 and 2012 there were more than 4,000. Even allowing for better recording, the increase is substantial. Particularly worrying is the much greater incidence of hydrological and meteorological disasters (figure 2.11). Although fatalities from natural disasters appear to be declining, the number of people affected is increasing.

    The frequency and severity of heat waves, floods, droughts and heavy precipitation have been linked to climate change. These extremes inflict exceptionally high economic and social costs. Moreover, there is growing scientific evidence that human action is responsible for warming the atmosphere and oceans, rising sea levels and some climate extremes. Global warming increases the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. So, some of these weather extremes could be potentially prevented, or at least lessened. Climate change and environmental degradation are major threats to human development. Action to reduce these vulnerabilities, including a global agreement on climate change negotiations, will be fundamental to securing and sustaining human development.

    Human Development Report 2014 [link to report at site]

  7. xraymike79 says:

    You should put a twitter button on your site so we can tweet your posts.