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Lights on in only one house

Electric Forecast Calls for Increasing Blackouts

• July 13, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Martin EJochen Kost/Shutterstock)

From falling investment to falling deer, America’s power grid is falling down. A lack of political will and willingness to rely on Band-Aids may doom efforts to improve the nation’s power infrastructure.

It’s not just a feeling: Power outages have become normal in the United States. Last month’s heat and derecho storms that left more than 300,000 people in the Mid-Atlantic states without power (some for as long as a week) are part of a larger trend. In 2008, according to the Eaton Blackout Tracker, there were 2,169 power outages in the U.S. affecting 25 million people. In 2011, there were more than 3,000 outages affecting 41.8 million people.

According to Eaton, the majority of power outages in the U.S. are caused by weather, in particular storms blowing trees on the lines, and heat waves that overwhelm the carrying capacity of the system. (We can blame animals, too. In 2011, 130 outages were caused by squirrels, eight by snakes, two by beavers, and one by deer. That deer was actually a fawn—a bald eagle dropped it into a substation in East Missoula, Montana, on March 25.)

Since the early 1990s, according to data gathered by Massoud Amin, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, the number of power outages affecting more than 50,000 people a year has more than doubled, and blackouts now drain between $80 billion and $188 billion from the U.S. economy every year. The power grid is slipping backwards to a time when infrastructure was unreliable, and more and more people are talking about going “off the grid” with solar, batteries, and generators as a result. Will this doom the greater grid, and by extension the greater good?

It’s not easy to keep 450,000 miles of high voltage lines up and humming. But the situation has gotten worse over the years because the U.S. has increased the load on its lines while investing less in the system. By Amin’s reckoning, since 1995 the power industry has taken more from its infrastructure than it’s invested; research-and-development spending in the power sector has fallen to just 0.17 percent of revenue. In effect, the power industry has behaved like a low-tech industry—and so it’s becoming one.

Across the power and wonkish sectors, though, there’s a fair amount of agreement that the U.S. needs to make massive investments in the backbone of the grid, as well as in a self-healing grid that can better handle outages (and hackers), and in information technology to make the grid “smart.” Amin estimates this will cost $17 billion to $24 billion over the next 20 years, but will save perhaps $49 billion in outage costs per year and increase energy efficiency to save another $20 billion a year. In other words, as a nation the U.S. would almost make money on the spending.

But in the political climate of the last decade, Americans have not gotten their act together. “We have wasted 10 years arguing about the role of the public and private sectors,” says Amin, “and our competitors have moved ahead of us.” He believes we need a leader who, like Kennedy, can pitch a big investment as a “moonshot,” but laments that “we’ve got gridlock on policy and uncertainty with investment.”

In the absence of a moonshot where everyone pulls together, Americans tend to go every man for himself. And so, when there are outages, there are runs on generators, batteries, and even solar panels. Once the province of survivalists and hippies, so-called normal people extoll going off the grid, especially after a grueling blackout. The remote Texas town of Presidio even got a giant battery to protect itself against shutdowns.

In many ways, this is good: Incorporating new technology will keep people’s lights on, and solar, deployed at large scale in places like Texas could mitigate or even prevent outages on hot days. But it also has risks: Backup generators create pollution and are themselves susceptible to fuel shortages, says Amin, and depending on the type of connection, even small amounts of undispatchable power on the grid can destabilize the whole system.

“Building backups may limit panics, but it’s unwisely defeatist,” he says.

Grids, like highway rules, vaccination programs, and universal health insurance, are extraordinarily reliable, but they only work when everyone who takes from them is also invested. Creating private, or ultralocal, hedges against failing power without investing in the greater grid is the electric equivalent of creating a gated community. And this is what has happened in countries with lots of blackouts: Cities in Nigeria and India are full of private generators belching out fumes. In Pakistan, where outages of as much as 20 hours a day are common, the new prime minister is catching scorn for installing a generator so he’ll have power 24 hours a day.

Two scary things stand out about America’s failure to shore up its grid over the last 15 years. The first is that the grid’s frailties are getting worse as our weather is getting weirder. The second is that the U.S.’s inability to sort out the right mix of public and private investment and get on with the process of building the grid we need reflects that we no longer quite believe in the common good. It’s not just a power failure, it’s also an optimism failure.

Lisa Margonelli
Lisa Margonelli is the author of Oil On the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank. She is currently working on a book about termites.

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