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
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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