Blackouts, Brownouts, and the Fragile Magic of Electricity

“Every power plant generates electromagnetic waves. From there they follow countless miles of high-voltage wave guides (commonly called “wires” or “lines”) at near the speed of light to numerous customer loads: heaters, motors, telephones, lights, antennas, radios, televisions, fiber-optic systems, the Internet, etc. We constantly “swim” through this sea of electromagnetic energy just as fishes swim through water. And, like water to fishes, this ethereal energy is vital to modern civilization.”
Richard C. Duncan, The Social Contract, 2006

“Whatever the statistics may finally show, it is probably the scenes on TV….thousands of New Yorkers walking home across bridges….five-star restaurants throwing out food….families in Cleveland and Detroit lining up for bottled water….that best convey the blackout’s impact.”
Commentary on August 2003 Northeast Blackout

Coal Power Plant Flue Stacks

How Electricity Gets to You Home

Today we take for granted the easy power available at the touch of light switch, but it was only as recent as 1882 that the first coal fired electric power plant opened in New York city delivering only enough power to light a mere 11,000 incandescent bulbs. 125 years later, we have cobbled together a complex and fragile North American electrical infrastructure that delivers electricity to over 115 million American homes.

According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2001, 107 million homes consumed:

  • 1,140 Billion Kilowatt Hours (kwh) of Electricity
  • 4,704 Billion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas
  • 5,105 Million Gallons of Fuel Oil
  • 4,121 Million Gallons of Propane
  • 18.7 Million Cords of Wood, and
  • 348 Million Gallons of Kerosene

If you convert the numbers above to equivalent Btu’s, electricity is clearly the largest residential energy user at 11.7 Quadrillion Btu per year. That number includes the primary source energy (coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc.) consumed to generate that electricity for your home. Due to conversion and transmission losses, only about a third of that source energy actually reaches our homes. In other words, our national electrical system is about 33% efficient.

The Fragile State of the North American Electrical Power Grid

“The electric power networks are the largest, most complex machines ever constructed. They have been built, rebuilt, and interconnected over many decades with a baffling variety of hardware, software, standards, and regulations. The ravenous input nodes must be continuously fed with immense amounts of primary energy and then the output nodes deliver electromagnetic energy to myriad customer loads.”
Richard C. Duncan, The Social Contract, 2006

“…most of the equipment that makes up the North American grid is reaching the end of its design life after nearly three decades of under investment.”
Peter Asmus, energy issues journalist, 2006

The “handoff” from the power generating plants to the final electric distribution grid occurs at the local substation. Substations take power delivered via large transmission-level high voltage lines and distributes it to hundreds of thousands of miles of lower voltage distribution lines. The distribution system is generally considered to begin at the substation and end at the customer’s meter.

The U.S. electrical power grid consists of three interdependent but separate networks: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and the Texas Interconnection. These networks are also integrated with international networks in both Canada and Mexico creating a N. American power grid. Overall reliability planning and coordination is provided by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NAERC) and its ten Regional Reliability Councils (RRCs). The NAERC is a voluntary organization formed in 1968 in response to the Northeast blackout of 1965.

The U.S. power grid uses about 157,000 miles of high voltage electric transmission lines. While electricity demand has increased by about 25% since 1990, the construction of transmission facilities decreased about 30% and annual investment in new transmission facilities has declined over the last 25 years. This lack of investment and deferred maintenance has resulted in congestion and increased failure. U.S.-wide transmission and distribution losses grew from 5% in 1970 to 9.5% in 2001, due to heavier use of an overburdened and congested grid. Bottlenecks now affect many parts of the grid and the resulting power outages (blackouts) and power quality disturbances (brownouts) are estimated to cost the economy about $100-billion a year.

The Growing Risks of Losing Electrical Power to Our Homes

“With [urban] power out beyond a day or two, both food and water supplies would soon fail. Transportation systems would be at a standstill … natural gas pressure would decline and some would lose gas altogether – not good in the winter time … Communications would be spotty or non-existent. … All in all, our cities would not be very nice places to be… Martial law would likely follow.”
Paul Gilbert, National Research Council, 2003 Congressional Panel Testimony

“We’re trying to build a 21st-century electric marketplace on top of a 20th-century electric grid,…no significant additions have been made to the grid in 20 years of bulk electric transmission, yet we’ve had significant increases in the amount of generation.”
Ellen Vancko, North American Electric Reliability Council, 2003

‘‘If present trends continue, a blackout enveloping half the continent is not out of the question.’’
Roger Anderson, Columbia University

“For systems theorists the first message of their eerily smooth distribution curves is clear: big blackouts are a natural product of the power grid. The culprits that get blamed for each blackout – lax tree trimming, operators who make bad decisions – are actors in a bigger drama, their failings mere triggers for disasters that in some strange ways are predestined. In this systems-level view, massive blackouts are just as inevitable as the mega quake that will one day level much of Tokyo.”
Fairley, 2004

The August 2003 blackout in the Northeast, that left 50-million people without power for up to 3 days, was a preview of what’s to come. The lack of investment in our electrical grid has driven reliability to its lowest point in history. Blackouts that affect at least half a million 
homes now occur on average about once every four 
months. The latest NREC 2007 Long Term Reliability Assessment reinforced the long standing and urgent need for investment in our national grid and identified additional critical weaknesses in the system. The report stated that:

  • Significant investment in transmission is still required in many areas of North America as projected transmission additions lag behind demand growth and new resource additions in most areas.
  • Canadian natural gas imports into the U.S. are expected to level off and decline overall as early as 2010 due to increasing demand in Canada. This will expose Florida, Texas, the Northeast, and Southern California to potential interruptions in fuel supply and delivery [of electricity].
  • New England, Texas, California, the Rocky Mountain states, the Southwest and Midwest will [all] likely face capacity shortages in the next few years.
  • An aging workforce will soon impact reliability. With some 40 percent of senior electrical engineers and shift supervisors eligible to retire in 2009, the industry will be faced with a significant shortage of experienced, knowledgeable workers.

Based on the current state of our electrical grid, blackout’s are more than likely to become more frequent, widespread, and longer in duration until we make the necessary and substantial investments required to modernize our aging grid. In addition, an aging electric utility workforce and shortages of natural gas will just add to our reliability problem. Going forward, blackout’s lasting days or even weeks are not out of the question.

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One response to “Blackouts, Brownouts, and the Fragile Magic of Electricity

  1. These comments are from a Carnegie Mellon electrical power generation expert at a recent conference on the health of our nation’s electrical grid.

    “In 2007, there were about 144 new coal-fired power plants on the drawing boards of the U.S. energy utilities. We will probably build none of them. The electric industry in the U.S. is in terrible shape, … so we should expect local and regional brownouts and blackouts to become common occurrences within five years…and the first isolated instances of brownouts and blackouts will hit us much sooner than that.”

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