Electricity blackouts a warning of crisis as demand exceeds supply

Addiction to gadgets and air-conditioning and a failure to invest in upgrading power grids spells disaster around the world, study finds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 9:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 3:37am


Soaring electricity demand for air-conditioning, iPads and increasingly cars, combined with a growing population and inadequate investment in creaking power networks is pushing the world towards frequent blackouts, academics warn.

China, Brazil and Italy have all had significant power failures in the past decade but these are just "dress rehearsals for the future" in which the lights will go out with increasing frequency and severity, predicts a new paper, "Blackouts: a sociology of electrical power failure".

The authors, Hugh Byrd of Lincoln University in Britain and Steve Matthewman of Auckland University in New Zealand, argue that the West needs to abandon the idea of uninterrupted electricity supply.

"Supply will become ever more precarious because of peak oil, political instability, infrastructural neglect, global warming and the shift to renewable energy resources. Demand will become stronger because of population growth, rising levels of affluence and the consumer addictions which accompany this," they argue.

They note that there have already been frequent warnings about blackouts in Britain from as early as 2015 from government advisers, network operators and the energy regulator, Ofgem.

Byrd and Matthewman argue the picture is broadly similar across the world, with the American Society of Civil Engineers warning that the US generation system could collapse by 2020 without US$100 billion of new investment in power stations.

The enormous growth in demand across the US is highlighted by figures showing that even as long ago as 2007 commercial and domestic air-conditioning alone consumed 484 billion kilowatt hours of electricity - not much more than the country's total energy consumption in the mid 1950s. It has grown substantially since then, while air-conditioning sellers have moved on to China, where household ownership of units has tripled in a decade and is still growing at 20 per cent a year.

India is showing the same pattern, says Byrd, a professor at Lincoln's school of architecture, and Matthewman, an associate professor from Auckland's sociology department.

Their report records a growing pattern of failures in power systems, starting with 50 million people being plunged into darkness on August 14, 2003, across the US northeast and Ontario, 60 million offline on November 10, 2009, in Brazil and Paraguay, plus 600 million affected by failures across India on July 31, 2012.

But the authors note that the move to renewable energy - often intermittent and weather dependent - can also exacerbate the problem. There were blackouts in Kenya and Venezuela in 2010 and in Tanzania in 2006 that were blamed on shortages of rain for dams used for hydroelectric power schemes.

Research shows that in the US, power outages have caused annual losses of up to US$180 billion, but economic cost is not the only concern. Food safety, crime rates, transport problems and the environmental cost of diesel generators all come to the fore during a blackout, say the authors.

"Infrastructural investment across Europe and the US has been poor, and our power generation systems are more fragile than most people think," Matthewman says. "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 problem has also been made worse in the developed world, where power systems are taken for granted. The easier technologies are to use, the less they are reflected on and yet they will have devastating and far-reaching social as well as economic impacts, the report argues.

Byrd adds: "Electricity fuels our existence. It powers water purification, waste, food, transportation and communication systems. Modern social life is impossible to imagine without it, and whereas cities of the past relied on manpower, today we are almost completely reliant on a series of interlocking technical systems."




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