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The Word of the Day – Blackout

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Utility companies in the United States are good at their job – so good that Americans can largely take for granted that, when they flip a switch, their lights will come on. But, if extensive investments are not made over the coming decade, the nation might soon use “blackout” as its mot du jor.

If one lived in a different country – for example, India or El Salvador – an assumption of constant access to power could get them into trouble.  More than 1.4 billion people worldwide currently live without access to electricity – almost 25% of the world’s population. And, of those who have access, many live in areas where monthly or even daily blackouts are an expected part of life.

But, in the United States, people enjoy consistent access to electricity thanks to extensive investments that provided near-universal access to power across the nation. Today, more than 160,000 miles of transmission lines and millions of miles of distribution lines run through the continental United States. This power grid allows utilities to – for the most part – balance supply and demand in the case of unexpected events. But, this system is still susceptible to damage by extreme weather.

For example, in June, a massive Derecho windstorm slammed into the east coast, plunging the area surrounding the nation’s capital into darkness.  According to D.C.’s Capital Weather Gang:

Between 9:30 and 11 p.m. Friday night [June 29, 2012], one of the most destructive complexes of thunderstorms in memory swept through the entire D.C. area. Packing wind gusts of 60-80 mph, the storm produced extensive damage, downing hundreds of trees, and leaving more than 1 million area-residents without power.

In some communities, the post-Derecho blackout lasted for more than a week, as utilities struggled to repair and replace damaged infrastructure. And, as extreme as this storm felt to area residents at the time, it was – in fact – a somewhat routine event. These types of windstorms occur frequently in the Midwest and are actually seen about once every four years in the Washington, DC area.

But, this week’s extreme weather event – dubbed Frankenstorm (a.k.a. Hurricane Sandy) – was not a routine event. And, as a result of wind gusts and pouring rain, this storm has plunged more than 8 million people into darkness. In an interview, Otto J. Lynch – vice president of the Wisconsin-based Power Line Systems – discussed some of the reasons behind this widespread blackout, stating that:

We have old infrastructure and we’re pushing our systems harder than anywhere else in the world. At the same time, we’re changing our power sources and we need new transmission systems…Most of our extra high voltage transmission lines were built in the 1950s and the ‘60s… Many of our structures are rusting and corroded and though the utility services are doing a pretty good job of replacing them, the problem is just that these lines have been up and running for 50 to 70 years.”

According to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the U.S. electric grid has received inadequate investment for many years and is at risk of breaking down. And, unless Americans are willing to invest at least $673 billion into the aging infrastructure by 2020, they can expect blackouts to become a more common U.S. headline.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of transmission lines courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

2. Photo of Hurricane Sandy courtesy of NOAA, via the U.S. Department of Energy.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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