Grid Lock and Load Shedding: Why the Lights Are Going Out

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. Thank goodness we don’t live in one of those backward countries where it happens all the time. (Photo by Alec Perkins/Flickr)

[Irony alert; avoid reading if allergic.] 

It is amusing to see — from the vantage point of the world’s number one economy, soon-to-be-number-one oil-and-gas producer, number one military power and just all around exceptional nation — the rest of the world struggling to keep the lights on. The poor beggars don’t seem to have the capacity to understand what it takes to run large enterprises and be Number One.  Examples abound:

On January 25, virtually the entire country of Pakistan lost electricity after its grid failed when a transmission line short-circuited. Pakistan’s grid is so dilapidated and its power supply so short of meeting demand that blackouts of 10 hours a day in the major cities and 20 hours daily in rural areas are routine. But the government (elected nearly two years ago on promises to fix the situation) swears that the grid collapse was the result of an attack by militants.

A punishing drought in Brazil has cut that country’s hydroelectric generation so much that rolling blackouts and days-long suspension of Internet availability are affecting much of the world’s seventh-largest economy. In the second year of an historic drought, the country is firing up fossil-fuel generators and importing power from Argentina in an attempt to keep air conditioners running in the searing summer heat. Even more seriously, water is being rationed in 93 cities as reservoirs dry up. The need for upgraded infrastructure, including the grid, has been debated without result in Brazil for decades. Its Science Minister, Aldo Rebelo, is a climate-change denier.

South Africa’s electric utility is cutting power for four hours at at a time in rolling blackouts across the country that it hopes will avert a national grid failure. The company says the blackouts are likely to continue at least until April, and maybe for years. For 20 years (since the first democratic elections — you know, morning in South Africa) the government has extended electric service to seven million more people without appropriating money for more generating capacity, or enough money to maintain the generators in service. Now, to everyone’s apparent surprise, the lights are going out.

How widespread is this problem, and how insulated are we from it? Good question.

In a story published last summer and widely ignored, International Business Times cited US Government data to reveal that the country that suffers more electrical blackouts than any other developed nation is — the United States. Blackouts of an hour or more have been steadily increasing for 10 years, as has demand for electricity, despite investments in renewables and “smart” grid devices. Americans lose power 285 per cent more often than they did in 1985, the first year these statistics were recorded. And where a resident of Japan can expect to lose power for an average of four minutes a year, a resident of the American Upper Midwest will have lights out for an annual average of 214 minutes.

The causes are well known and documented: a refusal by government and industry to spend what is required to maintain and replace aging, deteriorating equipment and satisfy steadily increasing demand; and increased damage from larger and more frequent storms because of climate change.

So do your worst, Pakistan and Brazil and South Africa and all the rest. America is still Number One.  

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8 Responses to Grid Lock and Load Shedding: Why the Lights Are Going Out

  1. Tom says:

    Oh man – GREAT observation Mr. Lewis! This has been the elephant in the room for so long that we don’t even realize that the elephant IS the room. Once the lights go out for an extended period (like the 2.5 days we endured it here in PA in the middle of ONE of last winter’s crippling snowstorms) you go directly back to the Stone Age. Ever try barbecuing dinner when it’s 10 degrees and windy? There’s no news (like when’s the power gonna come back on), no phone service, no internet, no refrigeration or heat, and in my case no water (on a well hook-up)! In the summer it’s probably worse. Obama wants to build more roads and fix bridges but ELECTRICITY is the number one item that keeps civilization ticking. As the collapse progresses, once the electricity goes out for a long time we get chaos, desperation, panic and violence – and there goes the neighborhood.

  2. Gail says:

    In addition to aging infrastructure there are an awful lot of trees that are dead or dying from air pollution falling on the lines. Next time you see a broken branch or trunk take a closer look. Most of them are visibly rotting on the inside.

  3. janwareus says:

    Fear not! Living in Botswana and depending on “booze-ups from RSA (maintenance problems), we are used to it! Some Hollywood car-crashing (that’s the way of getting rid of unsold cars?) is all we miss on TV.. Remember, we’ve had electricity just a few years and the old wood stove (and a more modern gas one) is still there. Otherwise, life as usual. I pity you in the US. Totally lost without power! Wake up!!

  4. Hamlet Jones says:

    Yes, I’ve cooked dinner on a barbeque when it’s windy, 10f, and no power.
    That how I lived when I built my homestead. The food is cold right after it hits the plate. Things got better, but last year, the power went out during a blizzard for 9 hours. Busted pipes and damage and a royal pita trying to fix it with wind gusting to 70. Those pipes were capped off until the following summer, when I made a permanent fix. Still haven’t got a storage tank for the well though. It’s going to be a real clusterf/ck when we start rolling downhill in earnest. People gonna die.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Spot on, Mr. Lewis—and too bad we have to expend all our energy fighting the ridiculousness that is Keystone XL (or the TPP or climate change denialism or any other red herring we care to name) rather than demanding investment in the grid. We have placed a good deal too much faith in the ability of renewables to ramp up at a breakneck pace and produce as much energy as we need just the minute we need it at a price we can afford, once the grid finally falls apart completely. Time for us all to start learning how to live with less—WAY less.

  6. Davebee says:

    Regarding South Africa’s power outages the term Load Shedding is just PR code for POWER CUTS. We had one yesterday actually.
    To add to this ‘ordinary’ power problem is an even worse political wrinkle…The ANC government, to curry favour with their black voter power base have added millions of CONNECTIONS but less than 1% of those connections are actually paying their electricity bills! As it’s political dynamite for the ANC to enforce the law on collections on this POWER THEFT there is less and less cash in the pot to run the maintenance required, PLUS Eskom (the state owned monopoly power supplier) is now going to INCREASE the shaky power supply costs to the metered or willing payers to make up the short fall.So, I get hammered with massive bills to pay/subsidize ANC voters who have no intention of paying for their electricity and GET AWAY WITH IT!