The Coming Blackout Epidemic

The lights may go out sooner than you think.

Nov 17 2014, 5:00pm

​Blackout in New York City after superstorm Sandy. Image: David Shankbone/​Wikimedia Commons

​Industrialized countries face a future of increasingly severe blackouts, a new study warns, due to the proliferation of extreme weather events, the transition to unconventional fossil fuels, and fragile national grids that cannot keep up with rocketing energy demand.

"We need a fundamental re-think about how electricity is generated and distributed and who controls this," said lead author Prof Hugh Byrd of Lincoln University, a specialist in international energy policy and urban sustainability. "It is not in the interests of the privatized power industry to encourage less electricity consumption."

Every year, millions of people around the world experience major electricity blackouts, but the country that has endured more blackouts than any other industrialized nation is the United States. Over the last decade, the number of power failures affecting over 50,000 Americans has more than doubled, according to federal data.

The looming power failure epidemic

The paper published this September in Routledge's Journal of Urban Technology points out that 50 major power outages have afflicted 26 countries in the last decade alone, driven by rapid population growth in concentrated urban areas and a rampant "addiction" to high-consumption lifestyles dependent on electric appliances.

Study authors Hugh Byrd and Prof Steve Matthewman of Auckland University, a sociologist of disaster risk, argue that this escalating demand is occurring precisely "as our resources become constrained due to the depletion of fossil fuel, a lack of renewable energy sources, peak oil and climate change."

Blackouts, they warn, are "dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity," they find. "We predict increasing numbers of blackouts due to growing uncertainties in supply and growing certainties in demand."

The problem is that industrial era grids simply cannot keep up. Average electricity use by US households increased by 1300 percent from 1940 to 2001, and is forecast to rise by a further 22 percent over the next 20 years.

According to Byrd and Matthewman, we are in the midst of a proliferating, global blackout epidemic that is likely to worsen. "Throughout our study, we observed a number of network failures due to inadequate energy, whether through depletion of resources such as oil and coal, or through the vagaries of the climate in the creation of renewable energy," said Prof Byrd, who specializes in international energy policy and environmental performance in urban areas.

Extreme weather and climate change

According to a little-known rep​ort last year to the Executive Office of the President by the Council of Economic Advisers and Department of Energy, between 2003 and 2012 the US saw 679 blackouts due to extreme weather events, costing on average $18-33 billion a year. In 2012 alone, the US suffered e​leven "billion-dollar" weather disasters.

"The number of outages caused by severe weather is expected to rise as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, blizzards, floods and other extreme weather events," the report found.

The growing prevalence of extreme weather including droughts due to climate change could also significantly undermine coal, gas and nuclear production, all of which require large inputs of water, to spin and cool turbines in thermal power plants.

The amount of fresh water consumed for world energy production could do​uble in the next 25 years according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In that fossil fuel-centric scenario, over 50 percent of demand would come from coal-fired power plants, 30 percent from biofuel production, and 10 percent from oil and natural gas production.

But as this year's UN World Water Development Report pointed out, the era of global fresh water scarcity is already here, with 20 percent of all aquifers having been overexploited. By mid-century, 2.3 billion people will be living in regions of severe water stress, which in turn will undermine the capacity to generate energy through traditional means.

Although fracking for gas is more efficient than coal in terms of water use, it is still deeply problematic, say critics. In an ongoing research​ project, biogeochemist Dr Ted Auch of FracTracker Alliance shows that fracking in Ohio is likely exacerbating water challenges, and could in itself lead to drought. This is already happening in Texas​ and Ca​lifornia.

Your air conditioner and clean car could be killing the grid

One side-effect of higher temperatures due to climate change is a dramatic increase in energy use. As climate change brings warmer summers and more intense rains to regions of North America, people resort to more air-conditioning to stay cool.

Byrd and Matthewman point out that the US is currently "the undisputed champion" of air-conditioning, which accounts for a whopping 20 percent of the country's domestic electricity consumption, and 13 percent of the commercial sector's. This is equivalent to the entire electrical demand of Africa. By 2035, the use of air-conditioning in just the US commercial sector will rise by another 22 percent.

Worldwide, overall energy demand for air-conditioning "is projected to rise rapidly to 2100," to as much as 40 times greater than it was in 2000. New York alone will need 40 percent m​ore power in the next 15 years partly because the city will contain a million more people, aided of course by electrical appliances, elevators, and air-conditioning.

But with the persistent rise of global primary energy costs, especially for oil as cheap conventional sources decline, the World Bank forecasts that by 2030, a smaller proportion of the world's population will have access to electricity than do now.

Belgium is already set to selectively switch off electricity in parts of the country this winter

Adding further pressure to future electricity demand is the rise of the electric vehicle, driven by efforts to mitigate climate change. Byrd and Matthewman note that in higher-income regions, switching entirely to electric cars would increase electricity demand by 15-40 percent. Even if we replaced all our petrol-guzzling cars with "highly efficient" electric cars, the new models would still consume about "twice as much electricity as residential and commercial air-conditioning combined."

Of course, there are precious few countries which have come anywhere near scaling up electric cars to a degree that could destabilize national grids, which are largely under threat from expensive fossil fuels and evermore frequent extreme weather episodes.

Byrd and Matthewman also concede that the demand challenge could be addressed, or at least mitigated, by upgrading the grid. A smart grid combined with better energy storage mechanisms could handle the intermittency and decentralized nature of renewable energy sources in a way that can overwhelm today's industrial era grids.

But in a slow-growth global economy hell-bent on austerity, the prospects for large government investments in grid resilience look slim. According to the global insurance company Allianz in an extensive rep​ort on blackout risks in the US and Europe, "privatization and liberalization" have contributed to "missing incentives to invest in reliable, and therefore well maintained, infrastructures."

"Blackouts during the last ten years in Europe and Northern America have demonstrated an increasing likelihood of supra-regional blackouts with accompanying large economic losses," Allianz observ​ed. "Large-scale, supra-regional blackouts are increasingly a realistic scenario."

Power overhaul

Byrd and Matthewman are thus hardly lone voices. Their research adds to a growing chorus of experts who foresee a dark future without overhauling power grids, securing stable, cleaner energy supplies, and reducing consumption.

By failing to upgrade power infrastructures, the shift to renewables can create new problems.

Belgium is already set to selectively switch off electricity in parts of the country this winter with its energy capacity at a low of 2 percent. The UK, at a seven-year low of just 4 percent capacity, is also cutting it fine. Similar concerns of blackouts or enforced power outages ('brownouts') have been raised for Germany, France and elsewhere in the EU.

A ne​w report by the French multinational technology firm CapGemini warns of a heightened risk of blackouts across Europe this winter due to the shut-down of gas-fired plants, competition from cheap US coal, and the big shift to wind and solar. Ironically, electricity surpluses from renewables have led to a fall in power prices and crippled fossil fuel utilities, which in turn has reduced the "electricity system's margin to meet peak demand in specific conditions such as cold, dark and windless days," according to the rep​ort.

The increasing, haphazard shift to renewable energy sources has therefore exacerbated the blackout risk not because renewables are bad at generating power, but because of the difficulty in integrating such volatile, decentralized energy sources into old power grids designed half a century ago around the old fossil fuel model.

From blackout to breakdown?

The practical consequences of all this set out by Byrd and Matthewman sound like a checklist for the dystopian endgame. "Blackouts affect pumps, refrigeration, traffic lights, trains, and cell phone towers," all of which will therefore have "serious consequences for water, waste, food, transportation, and communication systems."

Blackouts can lead to massive economic losses, food supply shortages, and increased crime

Surveying the impacts of past blackouts in the US, China, Canada, Italy, Africa, and many other regions, they show that blackouts can lead to state-rationing of electricity, massive economic losses, the breakdown of manufacturing, food supply shortages, degradation of water purification and waste facilities, and increases in crime rates and civil unrest. Yet they are not fatalistic about the inevitability of such an increasingly dark future.

"There is a possibility of mitigating, but not eliminating, the risk with improved technology," said Hugh Byrd. Major investments in self-healing 'smart grids' and 'smart metering' "can assist in reducing demand by providing feedback to users," but some technologies can also create new risks like "cyber-espionage of the control systems of generators and distributors."

Careful management will also be essential, according to Byrd: "The increased use of electric vehicles also needs managing carefully to avoid peak demands in evenings – recharging one EV is similar to the demand of about 4-5 houses."

Ultimately, though, the power sector as a whole will need a radical overhaul if we are to minimize the dangers. That means a combination of smart grids, decentralized renewables and much more modest consumption, Byrd told me: "There is a general trend emerging of the re-municipalisation of electricity supply. Distributed generation of electricity from renewable resources, as opposed to centralised, in a post-industrial society is an important issue."

Not everyone agrees, though, on the risk of blackouts. Prof Ugo Bardi, the author of a landmark Club of Rome​ report this summer on the global depletion of cheap fossil fuel and mineral resources, dismissed the idea that the factors identified by Byrd and Matthewman would necessarily lead to increased blackouts:

"Interestingly, in Italy we had a major blackout in 2003, with the whole country without electricity for about 12 hours… At that time, a lot of people in Italy were expecting blackouts to become a big problem. They didn't. The 2003 blackout took place in a moment of rapid growth of electricity production but, later on, market factors forced a reduction in consumption, the pressure on the grid system was strongly reduced and no more blackouts were seen."

According to Bardi, this is the scenario playing out in the UK, where "electricity consumption peaked at around the same time as Italy—although in the UK peaking was not accompanied by blackouts."

Growth of global electricity production, Bardi told me, is undergoing "a marked slowdown in many industrialized countries of the west," due to "increasingly high prices of energy that are squeezing demand. Now, the question is: would that lead to blackouts? In short, I think not—not in the short run, at least… Right now, the industrial sector of several western countries is rapidly contracting and the result is reduced consumption. So, right now, as long as things evolve slowly, I would say that I don't see a blackout danger anywhere in Europe. We should see a gradual reduction of consumption as people become poorer and poorer, and less and less able to afford to pay the electricity bill."

So whether we face a future of increasing blackouts or declining consumption, the climbing costs of keeping the lights on means more of us might be switching off. But clearly that doesn't need to be the final verdict: increasing investments in installing smart grids now could prepare us for increased electricity demand in the future.

"This means that serious questions will have to be asked at both the individual and collective level concerning what we want and what we need," conclude Byrd and Matthewman in their study, "balancing what is good for us with what is good for others and ultimately what is good for the environment."

Perhaps, then, the biggest threat to the grid is us—and our insatiable appetite for more.

Nafeez Ahmed, Ph.D. is an investigative journalist and international security scholar. He is author of ​A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization and the sci-fi thriller, ​Zero Point.