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Of Power Grids and Blackouts

I'm often chided by coworkers for my standings on domestic preparedness. Sometimes called "too apocalyptic" to be taken seriously. In fact, my questioning of established "because we've always done it that way" policy has cost me professionally on more than one occasion. And that's okay...

There is another area that has come up again and again. One potential threat that I cannot get anyone to talk about. Even the thought of me bringing it up in conversation gets me strange looks. The topic is that of a prolonged power outage/black out and or collapse of the power grid. I believe the loss of electricity related to a power grid failure is one of the most likely and most devastating threats we face. And nobody wants to talk about it or plan for it...

Our power grid is a series of power plants interconnected by wires that distribute the electricity from one area to another. If a power plant has to be taken off the grid for repair or maintenance, the other plants in the grid spin-up in order to make-up the capacity and meet demand. The issue is that when the "grid" is functioning at capacity and one power plant fails, the other plants may not be able to meet demand...they may be overwhelmed and kick themselves off-line to prevent burning out. Thus the cascade of failures travels through the grid and results in power outages. Keep in mind that there is no capacity for storage of electricity any place in the power grid...when the plants shut down, we go dark. In nearly every major blackout situation the commonalities are clear; one piece of the system fails, other plants cannot spin-up to meet demand or they in fact, fail and the failures cascade through the system.

What can cause a failure? Simple maintenance problems, storms/lightening, fires, or other natural disasters. What about this 'EMP' thing? Certainly. An EMP or electromagnetic pulse such as caused by a nuclear blast or other man-made variety could knock out a given area of the power grid. A solar storm and the electromagnetic disturbance that ensues could actually devastate the electrical system for years.

Whatever the cause, the sudden loss of electricity is an unnerving thought. There will be impact on infrastructure and civil response; including fire, EMS, and law enforcement. The longer the outage continues,  the greater the impact will be on everyone. Elevators will stop working, the ability to purify and pump water will slow to a drip, natural gas distribution may cease. Even those places with backup power supplies will eventually run short. The impact on health care facilities will be catastrophic and in many cases, evacuation will be impossible. Sheltering in place will work scantly better. In either case, power to ventilators and other medical machinery will fail. Communications will eventually fail with transportation systems halting long before that.

The impact on society caused by a prolonged power grid failure is almost too difficult to imagine. What would you do (personally and professionally) without electricity for one month? Six months?  A year?  It could be a long winter, couldn't it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for bringing up the elephant in the living room! I recently blogged about the process of creating a personal hazard analysis ( and lo and behold an extended infrastructure failure comes at the top of my list by probability/impact/mitigation balance. It's amazing after the northeast blackout, such a devastating failure hardly ever seems seriously considered in risk analysis. In fact is there even any well researched analysis of what the impact would be?


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