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How Do We Prepare for a Future With More Blackouts?

How Do We Prepare for a Future With More Blackouts?

From rolling blackouts in Texas to the largest power failure in the world, there’s nothing like a disruption in the electricity supply to remind us how dependent we have become. And that dependence is about to get us into serious trouble, according to a report over at The Guardian.

A future of disruption?
Looking at a research paper called Blackouts: A Sociology of Electrical Power Failure by Hugh Byrd and Steve Matthewman, and published in the Social Space Scientific Journal, the report suggests that we shouldn’t take uninterrupted supply for granted: “Infrastructural investment across Europe and the U.S. has been poor, and our power generation systems are more fragile than most people think,” said 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.”

The fragility of the electrical grid will come as no surprise to folks who experienced the recent blackouts in the Northeast. How we choose to respond will determine what happens next.

A confluence of technologies
While critics of renewable energy warn of intermittent supply, for example, there’s been a great deal of work to ensure that renewables can keep the lights on when the sun doesn’t shine. From distributed and utility-scale battery storage to smart homes,microgrids and demand response technology, there are technologies on the horizon that could at least help reduce our vulnerability to blackouts, if not craft a more resilient, sophisticated energy system than what we have now.

We also need to get serious about using a lot less energy. But progress is already underway. In a recent op-ed for Live Science, Seth Shulman of the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that efficiency and conservation measures over the last decade are a little talked about success story:
“Think for a moment about how many more electronic devices we all use these days—”even for tasks from brushing our teeth to reading books and magazines—”that we used to do without electricity. And yet, nonetheless, we’re still seeing steady declines in residential electricity consumption, down now to the 2001 level of an average of 10,819 kilowatt-hours per household. It’s a remarkable and indisputable achievement, that is saving you money and lowering the nation’s carbon emissions. The story is, to a large extent, a direct result of government energy-efficiency standards.”

A commitment to efficiency
From laptop computers using a fraction of the power that a desktop used to, to massive improvements in refrigerator efficiency, Shulman makes the case that government intervention has been central to such progress. Imagine what could be achieved if we redoubled such efforts, and if economies like China or India—countries that have much to gain from avoiding a future of blackouts—put their own efforts into curbing demand. That said, there are huge mountains to climb. Curbing electricity consumption in the U.S., where refrigerators and HVAC systems were already widespread, was relatively simple. As consumers in emerging economies gain economic clout, it seems reasonable to assume they’ll be acquiring the trappings of a modern lifestyle, and the growing energy consumption that goes along with it.

Tackle the problem from all angles

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this debate is that we’d be wise to not put all of our eggs in one basket. The pressing urgency of climate change means that we have no choice but to massively ramp up the production of clean energy. Alongside that effort, investing in sophisticated technology for both better energy storage and distribution would seem like a no-brainer. And conservation and efficiency should be priorities for developed and emerging economies alike.

Complex technology can only take us so far. An LED bulb is as useful as an incandescent in a blackout. An efficient new HVAC is as effective as a cheap electric space heater if the power is not on. Disruption to our energy supply is a useful reminder that, alongside efficiency, designers need to think about resilience, as Lloyd Alter said over at TreeHugger recently:

“At the time of this writing, hundreds of thousands of people are without power right now in Pennsylvania. The whole Northeast has been going through cold like we haven’t felt for years. If anyone ever needed a lesson in why we should stop building glass towers and why we should be building to far higher standards of insulation, this has been it. The people who are living in Passive Houses are sitting pretty while everyone might freeze in the dark.”

Smart homes are great. But deploy ‘dumb’ solutions first.

From caulking baseboards in a historic home to building new buildings that require almost no heating, strategies for increasing resilience can be applied anywhere. Used alongside cutting-edge solutions like LED lighting and solar PV, they can increase efficiency and reliability when the grid is operating, and guard against disaster if and when it does go down. What our future energy supply will look like seems decidedly uncertain. But what we need to do to shape it seems utterly clear.So let’s get started before the lights go out.

 

Article by Sami Grover

 

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Kara, selected from Mother Nature Network

Mother Nature Network's mission is to help you improve your world. From covering the latest news on health, science, sustainable business practices and the latest trends in eco-friendly technology, MNN.com strives to give you the accurate, unbiased information you need to improve your world locally, globally, and personally – all in a distinctive thoughtful, straightforward, and fun style.

51 comments

+ add your own
10:39PM PST on Mar 5, 2014

And what did the world do for all those millennia before electricity? ;)

1:19PM PST on Mar 2, 2014

Thanks

1:03PM PST on Mar 2, 2014

Something that could be done very easily with government subsidies is to install a bank of batteries in every household that wants it so they could be kept fully charged and during outages, those homes would have power for themselves and some to feed into the grid as well to places that had no room for batteries.I think this would make the process of restoring power go much smoother for the power company crews and for everybody else too. Plus, if you already have the storage system you could install solar, wind,and excersize equipment, to the system as well to help keep it charged.As for those who say alternative energy sources only make up a tiny percentage of what is needed, they've been claiming those figures for a good 20 years or so.I'm not buying it. Some people don't want us to know what we have accomplished so that we can look realistically as how much farther we have to go, and where we need to ramp it up. Anything that city people can do to conserve and help themselves would be enormus benefit.

9:40AM PST on Mar 2, 2014

thanks

7:30AM PST on Mar 2, 2014

I'm in NYC, where Frankenstorm Sandy left my place without electricity for five days. Fortunately, I had running (cold) water and gas to cook with; many were not so fortunate. I'd stocked up enough bags of ice (one for the freezer, one for the fridge, one for the cooler) that food spoilage was not a problem (I lost exactly a handful of food). I had plenty of candles and wind-up LED flashlights, and a battery radio to keep me aware of what was going on. My laptop was fully charged, so I was able to keep my mobile phone charged, too. At first, I could only text with it; after two days I could use it to make calls and get on the internet.

Beyond emergencies, we have choices. Here, Con Edison, which delivers all our electric power, lets us choose our energy service company (ESCO). Mine is a wind company that reinvests its profits into new wind turbines. Make the choice; don't let your power company choose for you. Health and peace.

4:09AM PST on Mar 2, 2014

I'm surprised that neither the article nor any of the commenters thus far has mentioned the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which could come from nature (the sun) or from a rogue terrorist nation such as North Korea or (in the near future) Iran exploding a crude high-altitude nuclear device above a target city or country. An EMP resulting from a solar geomagnetic superstorm of the size that hit the earth in 1859, known as the Carrington Event, could virtually wipe out today's intricate web of power transmission and related electronic/computer devices and bring civilization, as we know it, to its knees. Here's one of many links that describe some possible scenarios-- https://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/2013/07/30/jim-woolsey-electromagnetic-pulse-emp-is-existential-threat-to-america/

2:42PM PST on Mar 1, 2014

Real "energy independence" means being able to produce your own energy independently. We all need to look into ways to power our own homes with wind, solar, geothermal, etc. Obviously, more efficient appliances should be part of the upgrade.
You can bet that the power companies and fossil fuel producers will fight home energy production every step of the way. I won't go into all the ways in which the "grid" is a bad idea, let's just say the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

2:25AM PST on Mar 1, 2014

Treasure our resources and future

9:09PM PST on Feb 28, 2014

Interesting comments - thanks

2:45AM PST on Feb 28, 2014

Thank you.

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