Could blackouts become commonplace in the West?

On my way home the other night I drove through a town that had been hit unexpectedly by a blackout ” all the streetlights were out and the nearby houses were plunged into darkness. High winds had brought a tree down on some power lines, I discovered later. Thankfully, the power was restored relatively quickly and the outage had not been widespread.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Scotland. Recently, the north of the country was hit by a storm described as one of the worst in living memory. Forecasters blamed a ‘weather bomb’, a phenomenon where atmospheric pressure falls by more than 24 mbar within a 24-hour period, unleashing snow, freezing temperatures and high winds that reached over 100 mph in places.

All this left more than 38 000 homes without electricity for more than 48 hours. One of those homes was my brother’s. When I spoke to him on 10 December he had been without power for close to 72 hours ” and he was ruing the day he had decided to switch from a gas to an electric cooker.

Large-scale blackouts caused by natural phenomena such as storms are a fact of life when you have an extensive grid system. But blackouts can also be caused by faulty equipment or ageing power infrastructure that cannot cope with high demand ” although we tend to associate such blackouts with developing nations.

South Africa, for example, has become synonymous with rolling blackouts as Eskom battles to balance supply and demand on a very tight margin while trying to protect industry. Similarly, India continues to suffer from frequent outages, as peak demand outpaces supply.

In September, Chile was hit by a massive power blackout across vast swathes of the country including the capital Santiago. About 11 million people are estimated to have been left without power. Media reports blamed the collapse of the power system on a faulty 500 kV generator.

But developed countries or regions such as the US and Europe have not been immune to large-scale blackouts. You only have to cast your mind back to 2003, when an outage in the northeast of the US and Canada affected 55 million people and caused an economic loss of $4″8 billion. More recently, a blackout that originated in northwest Germany ” but also affected France, Austria, Belgium, Italy and Spain ” paralysed Western Europe over a weekend in 2006.

With lessons learned and safety features in place, surely such large-scale blackouts could not happen again in the developed world?

Not according to a joint study by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty and the Chief Risk Officer Forum, which expects large-scale blackouts to increase in both frequency and severity in Europe and the US, primarily because of ageing power infrastructure.

The study emphasises the necessity of substantial investments in the power supply systems in both Europe and the US to ensure future grid stability. Allianz sees the existing energy infrastructure as not ready and able to cope with the growing integration of renewable energies such as wind or solar power, which by their very nature are volatile supply sources and often produced far from the demand centres.

The report also highlights the potential risk of cyber attacks on power infrastructure ” a phenomenon that appears to be happening more and more frequently.

A third ” and rather intriguing ” factor that raises the risk of large-scale blackouts over the next two years is space weather. Geomagnetic induced solar flare storms apparently follow an 11-year cycle and are expected to peak again in 2013, particularly in the northern hemisphere. High-voltage transformers are said to be especially susceptible to damage from such space weather events.

Solar flares are somewhat outside our control, but the report exposes the folly of putting off investment to modernise grids in Europe and the US. Tough economic conditions persist, especially in Europe, but the report makes it clear that the economic fallout of not investing could far exceed the cost of grid improvements.

Finally, as this year draws to a close I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very successful and hopefully profitable 2012.

Kind regards,
Heather Johnstone
Chief Editor

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