As an Oregon resident, I was accustomed to the majority of my electric power being produced locally. Most of the Pacific Northwest is powered by hydroelectric dams, so the source is never far away, and the number of transmission lines/switches/power stations between the source and our homes were never as numerous nor complex as those in other parts of the nation.
Consequently, when our power went out, we knew why. It was always something local. On the Oregon coast, where winters produce at least four or five massive windstorms, power outages are extremely common in winter and almost always caused by trees and/or large branches landing on top of wires. (Note: at the Oregon coast, a large branch is often the size of normal trees elsewhere in the nation. We grow ’em big.) This also means that the outages are usually very limited in scope — a neighborhood here, sometimes an entire town, but never a whole county. And for the entire state to go dark? Unthinkable.
It’s different over in the eastern half of the nation, as evidenced by various outages that wiped out several states at once. Here’s a description of one such outage:
On 14 August 2003, the northeastern US and Ontario, Canada, were crippled by an enormous electrical blackout that affected 50 million people. Commuters struggled to get to work, ATMs failed, 36 car manufacturing plants were closed and hundreds of flights were cancelled, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in economic losses. The cause was later found to be a software bug in a control room in Ohio.
Fifty million people? The entire population of Oregon is only four million.
It’s different here in Portugal, too. Our power sources are all over the place, including way the heck up in northern Europe, and the systems delivering that power to us are enormously complex. I learned this the night that all of Loulé went dark and yet there had been no storm, no transmission tower going boom, nothing that I could see (or hear of locally) that could have caused it. I later learned that the outage affected not only Loulé, but also much of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, and Germany. Turned out it was caused by a power company switching off a cable over the river Ems in Germany, in order to allow the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl to pass. Switching off this cable overloaded others in the system, and kaboom: blackout in six different nations.
So I read with interest an article in New Scientist titled “Lights out: The dark future of electric power.” It has interesting things to say about the state of the world’s power systems, including the assertion that the North American grid is “arguably the world’s largest machine.” Wow, never thought about it that way. But what a machine: It is “highly fragmented. It crosses borders and regulatory zones and has no single owner or manager. Over 3100 utility companies are on it.” And many of those companies have no incentive to maintain or improve their infrastructure.
The authors state:
The vulnerability of such systems is demonstrated by the Italian blackout of 2003. The event began when a falling tree broke a power line in Switzerland; when a second tree took out another Swiss power line, connectors towards Italy tripped and several Italian power plants failed as a result. Virtually the whole country was left without power. It says something when a nation can be brought to a halt by two trees falling outside its borders.
Or a single power cable being turned off to allow a cruise ship to pass.
The authors are not optimistic about our near future in terms of electricity generation and distribution. Demand is going up (especially for air conditioning), supply is becoming more problematic, and the effects of blackouts grow ever more devastating as our society becomes more reliant on technogadgets:
Blackouts affect computers, microprocessors, pumps, fridges, traffic and street lights, security systems, trains and cellphone towers, with consequences across society. The economic losses can be enormous: power outages are already estimated to cost up to $180 billion a year in the US.
As the world becomes more reliant on digital technology, where interruptions of as little as one-sixtieth of a second can crash servers and computers, the negative effects will only multiply.
These problems have not gone unnoticed. The American Society of Civil Engineers has warned that without an investment of $100 billion, the US power generation system will collapse by 2020. In the UK, the National Grid, Ofgem, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Royal Academy of Engineering have all warned that the system’s integrity could be seriously reduced by the winter of 2015. Societies need to heed these warnings, or face a very dark future.
And societies are so very good at heeding warnings, aren’t they?