New Research Warns Of More Regular And Severe Blackouts

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Many of us have experienced the growing frustration of a blackout (or a brownout, depending on your international location). It’s very much a first-world problem, as many in the world live their entire lives with only a few hours of electricity a week — if any at all. The western world lives it’s life by electricity, if the numerous beautiful nighttime satellite photos of our planet are anything to judge by.

Image Credit: Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory

But according to new research, the occasional blackouts that currently plague the western world may only be a dress rehearsal for the future, when they could occur with greater frequency and increasing severity.

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, have penned a report which suggests that power cuts will become more regular around the globe as “electrical supply becomes increasingly vulnerable and demand for technology continues to grow at an unprecedented rate.”

“Electricity fuels our existence,” said Professor Byrd.

“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 issue, as determined by Byrd and Matthewman, is that guaranteed electrical power is under threat because of resource constraint — ie, the basic constraints created by the system that we are currently inextricably linked to. They note the depletion of our existing fossil fuel reserves and the fluctuating nature of renewable energy — though as energy storage technology evolves and more offshore wind systems are deployed, this fluctuation will become less of an issue. Add to that the ageing electrical systems currently in place, and the possibility of increasing blackouts is not as unlikely as it might originally seem.

“Infrastructural investment across Europe and the USA has been poor, and our power generation systems are more fragile than most people think,” said Professor Matthewman. “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.”

According to the study, US household electricity usage increased by a staggering 1,300% between 1940 and 2001, and as electric vehicles come more and more common and the need for air conditioners increase, not to mention the overwhelming increase in consumer technology, these statistics are only going to continue growing.

Many blackouts are occurring due to system faults and accidents, but according to the report a growing number are taking place due to the simple fact that there is not enough electricity to go around.

“Western societies 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,” Professor Byrd added.

“Research shows that American 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 and transport problems, 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 place additional strains on already struggling systems of generation.”

One need only look to the recent heatwave that swept through South-Eastern Australia, with temperatures over five days consistently reaching 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit). Air conditioners across the state were left on, fans dutifully trying to blow away the hot air left on over night, and numerous accounts of selective blackouts were reported in an effort to ensure electricity was available for hospitals and other necessary institutions.

With heatwaves such as this becoming more and more regular throughout Australia, not to mention the world, and the fact that air conditioning has been the greatest factor in increased electrical consumption and one of the greatest sources of systematic strain — due most likely to its consistent drain on electricity — it’s of little wonder that our ageing electrical systems — often built during the middle of the last century — are starting to complain somewhat at their increased workload. The report points out that the electricity used to fuel America’s air conditioning is currently the equivalent of to what was necessary to power the entire country during the 50s.

So get out those candles and paper fans, people, it’s going to get dark.

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Joshua S Hill

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8 thoughts on “New Research Warns Of More Regular And Severe Blackouts

  • just hook up your own solar power plant

  • I disagree with this one. It is because of electricity’s necessity that we will not have outages. If there is a supply problem then economics will lessen the demand through increased prices (go ahead and increase my electric rate and see what a light switch Nazi I become). Consumer electronics have gotten and will get ridiculously efficient, just take a look at the power requirements of breakthrough nano sized processors. The increased adoption of solar systems and electric vehicles will aid in decreasing the risk of brown-outs and outages. As long as there is a (mostly) free market economy, if there is a need it will be met.

    • Me, too.

      Electricity use per capita is on the way down and populations in the US and Europe are fairly stable. We’re really pushing efficiency at all levels.

      At the same time we’re adding renewables and strengthening the grid.

      During the most recent heat wave in Australia end-user solar pulled the top off the demand peak and helped keep the grid in good shape.

      I don’t think these guys got it right.

  • Home automation may become a power consumption factor in coming decades as food preparation, pest control, maintenance and a greater range of cleaning tasks are assisted by robots in the home.
    E.g. automatic cleaning may come to include a wider range of curatorial tasks, e.g. rotating kids’ toys so that each part of the collection is displayed on the top shelf part of the time, or organizing a wardrobe into neatly-ironed and folded outfits. The manipulations required to make this happen don’t need to happen very fast, but will probably require at least as much power as an air conditioner.
    As has been explored elsewhere, robot cooking will probably involve automated sourcing of ingredients. At its best this would involve the maintenance of an automated herb and vegetable garden on each dwelling’s roof, or purchase from the gardens of nearby houses, with the possibility of selling overbought or un-needed ingredients to neighbours’ kitchens. All these sub-applications will require power – especially as a roof garden competes with solar panels for sunlight.

    A counterexample of automation actually reducing power requirements would be a system that actively manages the flows of energy among various batteries, hot water storage tanks, solar panels (ideally hybrid pv / thermal), geothermal ground loops, fans, heat exchangers, etc, buying or selling energy from neighbours or the grid when that makes sense.

    Does anyone know how much more it costs to set up a home power system that can buy from or sell to the grid, but that can keep going if the grid goes off line?

    • “Does anyone know how much more it costs to set up a home power system that can buy from or sell to the grid, but that can keep going if the grid goes off line?”

      You’d need to start with the amount of power you want when the grid disappears.

      Here’s a short answer, if you live somewhere with a very unreliable grid then it might be worthwhile to use an inverter with battery backup and buy a set of batteries.

      If outages are infrequent then it might make more financial sense to use a generator. While that’s not the best thing for the environment it will be a lot easier on your wallet. Take a portion of what you save and purchase some carbon offsets as penance.

      • Most electric utilities require a shutoff switch that cuts the power from the solar array coming onto the grid in the case of an outage. You would have to install a workaround to get the power directly to your electric panel box. And this might have to be installed after the electrical inspection… 😉

    • search for hybrid inverters or smart inverters.. several already available and to choose from. Pricewise they cost _at least_ 2 times as much as comparable grid-connect inverters.

  • Using 1940 to 2001 is the ultimate in data cherry picking. Power demand is flat to down in the developed Western countries over the past several years.

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