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Julianne Geiger

Julianne Geiger

Julianne Geiger is a veteran editor, writer and researcher for Oilprice.com, and a member of the Creative Professionals Networking Group.

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What Will You Do When The Lights Go Out? The Inevitable Failure Of The US Grid

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Delta Airlines recently experienced what it called a power outage in its home base of Atlanta, Georgia, causing all the company’s computers to go offline—all of them. This seemingly minor hiccup managed to singlehandedly ground all Delta planes for six hours, stranding passengers for even longer, as Delta scrambled to reshuffle passengers after the Monday debacle.

Where Delta blamed its catastrophic systems-wide computer failure vaguely on a loss of power, Georgia Power, their power provider, placed the ball squarely in Delta’s court, saying that “other Georgia Power customers were not affected”, and that they had staff on site to assist Delta.

Whether it was a true power outage, or an outage unique to Delta is fairly insignificant. The incident was a single company without power for six measly hours, yet it wreaked much havoc. Which brings to mind (or at least it should) what happens when the lights really go out—everywhere? And just how dependent is the U.S. on single-source power?

When you hear about the possible insufficiency, unreliability, or lack of resiliency of the U.S. power grid, your mind might naturally move toward the extreme, perhaps National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers. Talks about what a U.S. power grid failure could really mean are also often likened to survivalist blogs that speak of building faraday cages and hoarding food, or possibly some riveting blockbuster movie about a well-intentioned government-sponsored genetically altered mosquito that leads to some zombie apocalypse.

But in the event of a power grid failure—and we have more than our fair share here in the U.S.—your survivalist savvy may be all for naught.

This horror story doesn’t need zombies or genetically altered mosquitos in order to be scary. Using data from the United States Department of Energy, the International Business Times reported in 2014 that the United States suffers more blackouts than any other developed country in the world.

Unfortunately, not much has been done since then to alleviate the system’s critical vulnerabilities.

In theory, we all understand the wisdom about not putting all our eggs in one basket, as the old-adage goes. Yet the U.S. has done just that with our U.S. power grid. Sadly, this infrastructure is failing, and compared to many other countries, the U.S. is sauntering slowly behind many other more conscientious countries, seemingly unconcerned with its poor showing.

The Grid, by Geography and Geopolitics

According to the United States Department of Energy, the American power grid is made up of three smaller grids, known as interconnections, which transport energy all over the country. The Eastern Interconnection provides electricity to states to the east of the Rocky Mountains, while the Western interconnection serves the Rocky Mountain states and those that border the Pacific Ocean.

The Texas Interconnected System is the smallest grid in the nation, and serves most of Texas, although small portions of the Lone Star state benefit from the other two grids.

And if you’re wondering why Texas gets a grid of its own, according to the Texas Tribune they have their own grid “to avoid dealing with the feds.” Now that’s true survivalist savvy—in theory.

When you look at the layout of the grid above, it’s easy to see that a single grid going offline would disrupt a huge segment of North America.

Wait—make that all of North America.

To give it to you straight, our national electrical grid works as an interdependent network. This means that the failure of any one part would trigger the borrowing of energy from other areas. Whichever grid attempts to carry the extra load would likely be overtaxed, as the grid is already taxed to near max levels during peak hot or cold seasons.

The aftermath of a single grid going down could leave millions of residents without power for days, weeks or longer depending on the scope of the failure.

So although on the surface it looks like the U.S. has wisely put its eggs into three separate baskets for safer keeping, the U.S. has in essence, lined up our baskets so that if one were to drop, or if the bottom were to fall out, the eggs from basket #1 would fall into basket #2. Which would break from the load, falling into basket #3—eventually scrambling all the eggs. Sorry, Texas. Related: Is Saudi Arabia About To Cry Uncle In The Oil Price War?

When multiple parts of the grid fail at the same time, it’s not necessarily more catastrophic—the catastrophe just happens more quickly.

According to Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in an interview with USA Today, "You have a very vulnerable system that will continue to be vulnerable until we figure out a way to break it out into more distributed systems."

The Grid, by the Numbers

Let’s look at the math behind the power grid, and what the U.S. is doing to improve it.

1. Through the Recovery Act, the DOE invested about $4.5 billion in the power grid since 2010 to modernize it and “increase its reliability”. $4.5 billion seems like a fairly large number, unless you’re talking about a single machine that serves as the lifeblood to nearly every human in North America—a machine that was conceived in 1882 by Thomas Edison—with little changed since then, conceptually speaking. For people who reside in weather-challenged areas, such as my home state of Michigan, a home generator is almost as necessary of an appliance as a microwave, and people are scrambling to go “off-grid” with alternative energy solutions—an act that will not provide them immunity should the lights go out everywhere else. And for what it’s worth, for those of you sporting solar and wind energy, you’re further taxing the grid—the grid just wasn’t designed to accommodate the surges and lulls of such systems, however green you find them.

2. Power outages—just the ones due to severe weather—cost the U.S. economy between $18 and $33 billion annually in spoiled inventory, delayed production, grid damage, lost wages and output. Despite a few billion dollars being thrown at the grid to improve its resiliency or reliability, the number of outages due to weather is expected to increase, assuming that climate change will indeed intensify extreme weather, as some predict.

3. The total annual cost from power outages, per federal data published in The Smart Grid: An Introduction, is a whopping $150 billion.

4. As of 2014, the DOE had generously spent $100 million (million, not billion) into modernizing the grid for the specific purposes of surviving a cyber incident by maintaining critical functions. This would be measures separate from making the grid more reliable.

5. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the electrical grid a grade of D+ in early 2014 after evaluating the grid for security and other vulnerabilities.

6. The average age of large power transformers (LPTs) in the US is 40 years, with 70 percent of all large power transformers being 25 years or older. According to the DOE, “aging power transformers are subject to increased risk of failure.”

7. LPTs cannot be easily replaced. They are custom built, have long lead times (even 20 months, in some cases), cost millions of dollars, are usually purchased from foreign entities due to limited U.S. capacity, and weigh up to 400 tons. All this means that patching and fixing is likely to be favored over replacement, despite their age and associated risk.

Working with those figures, most of which are provided by federal sources, this means the U.S. invested, from 2010 to 2014, $4.5 billion to modernize the grid, along with an additional $100 million to stave off cyber threats. That’s $4.6 billion over four years, or $1.15 billion per year in upgrades. Next to the $150 billion lost each year due to outages, it looks like someone has done some subpar calculating.


The security of the power grid, which is a separate issue from the reliability of the power grid, is a whole other issue that concerns itself with hypothetical one-off scenarios—albeit terrible one-off scenarios. But at least there’s a chance that those one-off scenarios, such as a cyber-attack on the grid or some terrorist activity, would not come to fruition. A chance, at least.

What we are certain of, is that severe weather will continue to stress and threaten our power grid. And unless something changes, ultimately, it will fail. So when we talk about reliability, we’re talking about “when” and “for how long” scenarios, not “what if”.

The how-long factor plays a huge role into how bad is “bad”; not because of the events that one knows will follow, which includes mass food spoilage, deaths due to overheating in the hot summer months, deaths due to freezing in the cold regions, and the halting of everything we take for granted these days—airlines, internet and most other forms of communication.

All that sounds pretty bleak, but when you throw into the mix the mania and hysteria that would ensue shortly after such catastrophic events, it will be so much worse. Best-selling author Charles Mackay, in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, does a pretty good job describing, through example, how crowd decisions and reactions are significantly less sensible than individual decisions—sometimes downright nutty, as evidenced by Tulip Mania, where supply and demand—or in this case scarcity and demand, drove up the prices of tulip bulbs to ridiculous levels.

In the context of blackouts, we saw this in 1977, when a lightning strike in New York on a Hudson River substation tripped two circuit breakers, causing power to be diverted in order to protect the circuit. The chain of events that followed ended in an entire blackout for the area, which led to mass rioting, over 1000 deliberately set fires, the looting of 1600 stores, and the eventual arrest of 4,500 perpetrators and the injury of 550 officers, according to some estimates. The power was only out for 25 hours, and in one area.

In all likelihood, the haves (those who have removed themselves from the grid and prepared accordingly) will soon be overrun by the have-nots in the event of any extended blackout, with heavily populated areas taking the brunt of the chaos—and your solar roof panels or generator will not suffice as your savior.

The U.S. would be wise to follow the lead of some other countries, such as Denmark, which has decentralized its grid, but we doubt the cash exists to fund such an ambitious overhaul of an archaic system that has been left essentially unattended for decades upon decades.

(Click to enlarge)

By Julianne Geiger for Oilprice.com

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  • Tar Heel Realist on August 15 2016 said:
    I like the way the author paints Preppers as "extreme"...shows the contempt the Left has for those of us who like to prepare for the unknown. What's wrong w/being prepared and providing for ones family???

    It's better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it. Besides, the USCG's moto is Semper Paradus...Always Prepared.
  • Roland on August 15 2016 said:
    "I don't think paralysis [of the electrical grid] is more likely by cyberattack than by natural disaster. And frankly the number-one threat experienced to date by the US electrical grid is squirrels." - John C. Inglis, Former Deputy Director, National Security Agency 2015.07.09

    cybersquirrel1.com, or search 'squirrel power outage'.
  • Tom Glass on August 16 2016 said:
    I saw a presentation at the Texas state capitol earlier this year that said that it takes 90 days for nuclear power rods to cool enough to not melt down after the reactor is turned off. During that 90 days, electricity is needed to run pumps that circulate fluid to remove the heat. If fuel is not available for the backup generators, we get Fukishima-style meltdowns. But nuclear power plants only have seven days of fuel for their backup generators based on the assumption that extra fuel can get to them within that time.

    How many refineries can run without power from the grid? How many pipelines can run without power from the grid?
  • Dragan on August 17 2016 said:
    Good article, but I'd add a few points.

    Edison did not envision this type of grid. It was Tesla. Edison wanted disconnected small DC plants powering each block.

    The outage in Northeast on August 14, 2003 would be a better example to illustrate what kind of risk we are facing.

    PV cells on the roof would help in summer but in winter only as long as the natural gas is flowing.

    The grid needs more redundancies to be resilient to any kind of threats.

    PV and wind are ok if the grid have enough capacities that can switch on and off quickly (hydro) or relatively quickly (gas). However we still need a solid baseline that is provided only by thermo or nuclear. The only green alternative to baseline is geothermal like those in Geysers CA.
  • Beano McReano on August 17 2016 said:
    This has been talked about over and over a national radio show for years and still Congress does nothing about it.

    I do believe they are all communist up there and they have taken over to see the destruction of America.

    I can't explain any other way why they have a racist radical Muslim up there.
  • Donald Canaday on August 17 2016 said:
    There was another major black out in New York City,New York .i believe the month in November 1965,that cause a blackout in New York City for several Hours.
  • Ben Kellison on August 18 2016 said:
    Although this article seemingly brings up many data sources. In reality, it is skimming from the top of the worst of the worst scenarios and facts. I only have time to go through a bit of this, but there are three massive fallacies that have to be mentioned here.

    1. Although there are 3 interconnects, they are not operated as singular entities - The interconnects are operated by tens of parties that compartmentalize these grids, manage reliability, and work to stop cascading failures. These operators or owner operators are subdivided into regional groupings through NERC and for that matter have a fair degree of autonomy during major outages. This will not prevent a large outage, but it has limited major events like the ones that happened in 1977 and in the Northeast in 2003.

    2. The interconnects truly operate separately. There is very little transmission capacity between them and the grids operate asynchronously. Simply put an outage on one interconnect cannot spill over into another.

    3. To say we have only spent $4.5 billion in grid upgrades over the past 5 years is very short-sighted and flat out wrong. Consolidated Edison alone is currently investing over $1 billion in grid hardening and intelligent technologies for the grid. Con Ed provides transmission and distribution services to New York City residents and distributed power to a little over 1 in every 50 US power customers. Doing the math it is not hard to realize that $4.5 billion in investment from the federal government is a small portion of the overall pie versus state and local utility spending. There are cyber security weaknesses still, but we are investing, just maybe still not enough to completely combat smaller distribution level dangers such as squirrels and falling trees.

    4. Denmark is not a good counterpoint if you are trying to rally against interconnects. They have increased the number of distributed sources on the system, but the transmission grid is operated by a single entity across two zones. This analysis also discounts the number of distributed generators that have been installed in the US. It is worth noting there are over 500,000 systems in California alone that produce power within CAISO.

    All in all, I am surprised this article was not written on April 1st. I would recommend the next time you publish something with this wide of a brush you pull together more than an afternoons worth of research, or at least consult an expert or two over the phone, because things are a lot more complex and a lot better than this article portrays them to be.
  • Bill Simpson on August 19 2016 said:
    Trust a person without electricity for a week after Hurricane Katrina. Virtually nothing works without electricity. Once the gasoline in your tank runs out, you had better like to walk, since electric pumps don't pump fuel out of underground tanks. The phone system will go down as soon as their diesel runs out. Refineries use grid power. Nukes need cooling pumps running.
    Even the cops couldn't communicate, since radio repeating stations went down.
    We were fortunate that help could come in from nearby, undamaged areas. And several days warning gave nearly a million people a chance to flee the area which was going to get hit. That won't happen with a power failure. There is no warning.
    We get hit by a Carrington scale solar storm today, and within 30 days, 90% of the US population will have starved to death. That figure comes from a Federal study. It sounds nuts, but without electricity, you soon run out of food. In three weeks with nothing to eat, you're dead. You can't walk far, after 4 days without any food, or 2 days without water. You won't believe how freaked out you get at 94 degrees when you open a faucet and no water comes out. Many water systems use electric motors for pressurization. The toilets back up without lift stations running. Cell phones fail after the switching centers for the phone lines run out of diesel to run generators. Electronic computers run the phone exchanges which enable the Internet to operate. After a few days, or so, no electricity equals no Internet or telephones. Think the government can coordinate anything without phones or the Internet working. If you do, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Remember how efficient the Katrina response was?
    Like with petroleum, the vast majority of us can no longer survive with the electricity out for long over a large area. Even if foreigners wanted to come help feed us, it could never be done. I doubt they would want to venture into the radiation coming from the nuke plants. Those electric cooling pumps shut down, and a lot of the country will be radioactive.
  • Rick Ulsterman on August 19 2016 said:
    Ben Kellison's comment hits the nail on the head. The article is 99% smoke and 1%flame.

    North American power grids are as reliable as government mandates and policies allow them to be. If you want to convert to decentralized micro-grids then lay out a plan for doing so, rather than taking scattergun potshots at a system that keeps you and everyone you know alive in spite of the effort of half the world to bring it down.

    Only multi-scale nuclear new gen nuclear reactors will give the reliability and versatility that can fuel a wide fleet of micro-grids across all geographies.

    The best way to kill a grid is to force unreliable energy sources onto it at high levels of penetration. That is the approach that Germany and Denmark began to take before they started to come to their senses.
  • Graydon Tranquilla on August 20 2016 said:
    Very informative article. Well done. 20 months to build a large replacement transformer is accurate..... BTW - It was Nikola Tesla that developed the polyphase motors and generators and worked with Westinghouse to start the NA grid network at Niagara Falls.....leaving Thomas Edison in the dust.... Edison lost out with his fixation on DC power... But now HVDC long trunklines will improve system reliability and efficiency slightly...
  • Horatio Alexander on August 20 2016 said:
    Luckily most of us do not need electricity to survive. Humans have survived and thrived for thousands of years if not much much longer without it. Use of electricity is a very new thing here on planet earth. Can you imagine no more internet! What a pity.
  • Mark Richardson on August 21 2016 said:
    It seems that the author doesn't believe in climate change, or in any need to rapidly move away from man-made carbon emissions, as she pretty much says that green renewable power just hurts her precious though rapidly-aging grid. What powers your grid anyway, coal, natural gas, nuclear power, or maybe a hydroelectric dam? Did we also know that large-scale power grids waste a tremendous amount of energy and heavily contribute to rising temperatures too?

    Here in Colorado we don't have nuclear power, though we have already suffered enough from mining uranium and processing it here. Colorado used to have thousands of coal mines but today only two remain open, as here, rooftop solar is considerably less-expensive per KwH than is coal power.

    Even though our big public utility, Exel, is among the leaders nationally in windpower, just over the last 15 years their rates have more than tripled, and just three years ago they instituted a two-tiered rate which forces the owner of any house larger than 800 square feet to pay triple for any power consumed in-excess of a very low amount of use.

    Our houses keep getting bigger and bigger eh? My parent's house in West Bloomfield, MI was built in the early 1960s and it was over 4000 square feet. The "house size" argument seems popular among some urban planners but the reality lately is that in high-cost cities, of which Detroit isn't one, apartment and house sizes keep falling everywhere except on the suburban fringe, as housing cost is rising at an outrageous rate, just as power prices are lately too.

    For instance, here in Denver where I live now there has been a spike in the construction of studio apartments trying to keep rental costs down, and even a 350 square foot studio will run you $1200-$1500/month these days here too. While there are some larger houses in our suburbs they are not much larger than was common in the 1960s in suburban Detroit either.

    It seems like our problem is multi-faceted. Our huge power grid is basically a 1950s design which our society must abandon if our own children are to continue to have a viable planet to live their lives out on. We must move away from large grids and large public utilities, to small grids, micro-grids, and far more use of renewable-source energy as well as battery storage if we are to have any hope of stabilizing rapidly-rising temperatures.

    As such, the author's position here is basically trying to buy more time for a dinosaur that is rapidly killing planetary livability, and reminds me a lot of very similar comments coming from our fossil fuel industries.

    Yes, fossil fuels, large public utilities, and large-scale power grids is what got us to our present point, and they, along with fossil fuel-powered transport, overseas shipping, and other carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide-producing industries will be the death of us all if we can't rapidly and responsibly move away from that is rapidly destroying us toward a sustainable future without fossil fuels and large power grids that waste huge amounts of energy and cost far more money to maintain than many of us can afford.
  • Rob Benjamin on August 21 2016 said:
    I didn't get any message from the article that the author doesn't believe in climate change. I also didn't see any hit that she thinks that we just need a more efficient and reliable system for delivering fossil-fuel based energy.

    But I agree with Mark Richardson's overall comments about the need for radically-decentralized energy generation. In New Jersey, Superstorm Sandy left several hundred thousand people without power for over a week, and a lot of them without power for almost a month. PSE&G was able to restore power fairly quickly to most of its customers, but many of the customers of the state's other utilities were stranded for weeks.

    Backup generators directly connected to the gas grid protected many, but not nearly enough people, businesses and even cell phone towers. But those that depended on the electric grid not just for power but to resuppy their gas-powered backup systems were also screwed.

    I think the biggest defects in the article is are the author's complete omission of conservation and efficiency in reducing demand, and her lack of understanding of how proper grid connections would eliminate any problems of grid overload from solar and wind energy systems. Here's what she said that left me scratching my head:

    "For people who reside in weather-challenged areas, such as my home state of Michigan, a home generator is almost as necessary of an appliance as a microwave, and people are scrambling to go “off-grid” with alternative energy solutions—an act that will not provide them immunity should the lights go out everywhere else. And for what it’s worth, for those of you sporting solar and wind energy, you’re further taxing the grid—the grid just wasn’t designed to accommodate the surges and lulls of such systems, however green you find them."

    To the extent that they really exist, problems like these are exactly the kind that a truly resilient grid would eliminate.
  • M van Dongen on August 21 2016 said:
    @ Horatio Alexander.
    An incredibly naive statement.
    The only thing that allows us to maintain current population levels is cheap energy.
    Without cheap energy modern agriculture is impossible.

    To say nothing of (food) distribution, sanitation, clean water, modern medicine, gas pipelines ( heating and cooking ),communication for emergency services and police.

    To that you can add the wonderfully efficient JIT economy that will collapse without communication and distribution networks (ie. electricity ). 3 to 7 days of inventory is what most companies have in storage. After that they will need inputs again.
  • Andy Eppinl on September 05 2016 said:
    The only two people in this entire presentation, including the author, who know what they're talking about are Ben Kellison and Rick Ulsterman. The North American grid will eventually have to be solidly unified with UHVDC transmission lines and nodes, a hugely expensive proposition. Eventually the entire planet, obviously much more pie-in-the-sky yet.
  • Scottar on October 21 2016 said:
    The solution is obvious, a transition to 4th then 5th gen nuclear that don't depend on water nor outside power for shutdown.

    Wind and solar are a fools game, they are trying to harvest low density fuel which is why they require a huge infrastructure with radical, expensive changes to the grid. Even then they have to be backed up with expensive peaking gas generators. They are over subsidized and not really sustainable. No viable storage scheme is even close to being implemented except for brownout protection.

    Geothermal has it's problems and hydro dam power is limited.

    By developing modular nuclear plants the grid can be decentralized. Then the Grid will have to have EMP protection as well.

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