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Published on February 1st, 2014 | by James Ayre

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Power Outages To Become Much More Common & More Severe In Coming Years, Better To Start Adapting Now

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February 1st, 2014 by  

Modern life and civilization depends a great deal on easy access to electricity — everything from transportation, to food production, to medical care, to crime management, etc, depends on it. So what happens when disruptions occur, when the electric grid is no longer reliable and there is no longer easy access to cheap electricity?

This may all sound like nothing but a thought experiment to some, but this is in fact the future that we are facing, according to a new multi-university study — blackouts and power cuts will become increasingly common and increasingly severe in the coming years as the result of resource constraints, rapidly growing demand, and aging and crumbling infrastructure. The report notes that, if we don’t want these soon-to-be-relatively-common occurrences to be too debilitating, we should start adapting now, while we still have the chance.

Image Credit:Blackout via Flickr CC Image Credit:Blackout via Flickr CC

The new research — headed by Hugh Byrd, Professor of Architecture at the University of Lincoln, UK, and Steve Matthewman, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand — has found that the electricity supply is “less robust than commonly supposed” and that power cuts will simply become a fact of life throughout much of the world as the “electrical supply becomes increasingly vulnerable and demand for technology continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.”

Professor Byrd states: “Electricity fuels our existence. It powers water purification, waste, food, transportation and communication systems. Modern social life is impossible to imagine without it, and whereas cities of the past relied on man-power, today we are almost completely reliant on a series of interlocking technical systems. Our research therefore explores what happens when the power goes off, and explains why the security of fuel supply is such a pressing social problem.”

The main drivers for this decreased reliability (according to the research) will be the increasing depletion of (economically recoverable) fossil fuel reserves and the transient nature of renewable energy sources. Another very important factor, though, is the reliance that we have on rapidly aging systems — as an example, almost three quarters of all American transmission lines are more than 25 years old.


Professor Matthewman states: “Infrastructural investment across Europe and the USA has been poor, and our power generation systems are more fragile than most people think. The vulnerability of our electricity systems is highlighted by one particular blackout which took place in Italy in 2003, when the whole nation was left without power because of two fallen trees. This reality is particularly alarming when you consider the world’s increasing dependency on electricity.”

The University of Lincoln provides more info:

While many blackouts occur due to system faults, the researchers reveal that network failure due to inadequate energy is also a growing concern. The study explains that US household electricity usage increased by 1,300% between 1940 and 2001, and looks ahead to the future when demand for electric vehicles and air conditioning systems is expected to rocket.

In the last few decades, air conditioning has been the greatest factor in increased electrical consumption and one of the greatest sources of systematic strain, with considerably more blackouts occurring in the summer months than during winter. The electricity used to fuel America’s air conditioning is currently a similar volume to its entire energy consumption in the 1950s, and countries such as China and India are following a similar pattern.

Professor Byrd continues:

It is estimated that energy demand for air conditioning in 2100 will be 40 times greater than it was in 2000, and alongside this, there is also an ever-increasing market for electric vehicles. Western societies therefore face a significant social problem. They are becoming ever more dependent upon electrical power yet supply will struggle to meet demand, especially if you consider the current rate of population growth and the continuing sophistication and prevalence of electrical appliances in our homes, work places and social environments.

Research shows that in America power outages cause annual losses of up to $180 billion, but economic cost is not the only concern. We should also consider issues of food safety, increased crime rates, transport problems and the environmental cost of diesel generators; which are all matters that come to the fore during a blackout. Our research aims to show how important it is to consider these issues, as our increasing demands continue to place additional strains on already struggling systems of generation.

While action to address this issue on a country-level scale may or may not occur, there is quite a lot that you can do to help yourself — in particular, you can install an off-the-grid renewable energy system (solar or wind) to provide your own electricity, and/or you can start a garden or some other means of producing some of your own food. :)

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • Larry

    Thes two authors must be living under a rock somewhere. With the cost of solar powered electricity already competitive with fossil fuel powered electricity and the cost continuing on a downward trajectory there will be MORE and MORE P-V powered electricity available to run air conditioning. There are 1400 times more gigawatts of electricity arriving on earth on a daily basis in the form of FREE photons than we currently consume. Peak air conditioning demand happens to coincide with PEAK solar power production (they fit hand in glove). Where have these authors been for the past decade? Never give any credence to any pronouncement for a professor of sociology. Sociology is NOT a science.

  • RandyB

    Seems right: Hotter climate means more atmospheric turbulence means more outages. The doesn’t mean every storma nd outage is the work of Climate Change, just statistically they are a little more frequent and severe.
    More use for hybrid cars as generators.

  • JamesWimberley

    The opinions of an architect and a sociologist from not terribly prestigious institutions deserve more than the usual scepticism. Germany and Denmark get much more e of their electricity from renewables than the USA – and have much more reliable grids. Much of the difference is down to the local distribution network: in Germany it’s almost all expensively buried, and immune from the weather.; this difference has nothing to with the generating sources. There’s no reason to think you can’t have a reliable supply with any generating portfolio – at a price.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Yet again this nonsense, that due to renewable energy, there will be worse and worse blackouts.

    The truth could not be farther from this, because the complete opposite happens. Due to renewables, there is more and more demand for grid scale batteries and electric vehicles that not only are leveling the intermittent solar and wind energy, but more importantly they are stabilizing the grid. So that it is by orders of magnitude more robust against shocks that may lead into collapse of grid.

    Also batteries makes peak power production capasity irrelevant and this of course favours coal power which is sad by product. But I think that carbon tax is good way to fix this problem.

    • RobS

      IT doesn’t favor coal fired power stations at all. The price spikes that happen when peak capacity events happen are generally paid to all power producers even the coal baseload ones. This means that despite only having costs of ~5c/kwh at times of peak demand coal power plants can receive up to $12/kWh when prices spike, this means peak pricing events make up a disproportionate amount of baseload generators revenue. Take away these peak pricing events and a major part of the baseload business model evaporates.

      • Jouni Valkonen

        Until renewables are dominant, there must be some baseload power generation. We cannot live without electricity. And with grid storage, only the cheapest power production survives.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Of course we can’t turn off existing coal and nuclear plants overnight. We have to phase them out as we lower demand and bring renewables on line.

          Don’t forget that while existing (paid off) coal and nuclear plants can produce cheap electricity most of our thermal plants are old and won’t last many more years. As they die of old age they won’t be replaced by new coal and nuclear – the cost of new thermal plants make them non-competitive.

          • Matt

            This is a point that can be made often enough. People compare the price new wind/PV to paid off coal plants. New plants cost much more (you have to build them).

  • RobS

    I stop reading any report about energy and electricity use when I reach this phrase; “rapidly growing demand”

    In both the US and Australia over the last few years total demand is consistently falling and the trends causing that in terms of improvment in energy efficiency technology and community support for them are strengthening not weakening. Any report that claims and assumes rapid demand growth is simply unhinged from reality.

    • Ronald Brakels

      And I’ll mention that Australia’s economy has been the strongest in the developed world so the reduction in electricity use hasn’t been the result of a poor economy. (However our new government has promised to save us from the shame of having the world’s best performing economy so we may soon find electricity demand falling even faster here.)

      • miles

        ARE YOU BLIND!!! Tony Abbott will never allow electricity demand fall. Worst prime minister ever.

        • A Real Libertarian

          It doesn’t matter if Abbott “allows” it or not, his insistence on expensive coal is going to drive people away.

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