Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Blackouts Are Increasing in the US

Since about the year 2000, Richard C. Duncan has been maintaining, no doubt correctly, that global systemic collapse will be signaled by massive failures of electrical power. Recent events seem to vindicate his theory: power failures in the US have been increasing steadily for several years. Lisa Margonelli (2012, 13 July) concludes that annual outages have doubled since the early 1990s. She adds that it would require "$17 billion to $24 billion over the next 20 years" to improve the grid and reverse the trend. The figures she cites for blackouts of all sizes can be compared to those for the really big blackouts, affecting at least 1,000 people for at least one hour. For example, from 1965 to 2000 there was roughly one major blackout in the US every two years. From 2001 to 2011, on the other hand, there was an average of about one every six months. The year 2011 alone had six big ones.

In the long run, however, the dangers of electrical failure are more a problem of energy than of mechanics. The transformers and other mechanical components, in many cases decades-old and long overdue for replacement, are a relatively minor part of the problem in the US, even if billions of dollars would be needed to replace them. The trickiest problem will come when there isn't enough energy to keep them operating. But it's not so much a lack of energy, more a case of overload -- although that's roughly the same thing.

It's hard to visualize how much energy the industrial world now requires: over 500 exajoules per year. A single exajoule is "10 to the 18th power joules." The Tohoku earthquake that devastated Japan in 2011 was slightly more than a single exajoule. It is because of this enormous consumption of energy that "systemic collapse" isn't something we can dismiss as belonging to some vague and distant future. Duncan (2000, November 13; 2005-06, Winter) points out the following:

(1) Electricity forms the largest global "end" use of energy. Electricity consumes 43% of that end use, whereas oil as such consumes only 35% as end use.

(2) The production of energy in all forms is, as noted above, more than 500 exajoules per year. Nevertheless, that's nothing for anyone to feel content about, because global energy production "per capita" has actually been declining since 1979. (That's the same year that global oil production per capita began to decline, mainly because oil is a major component of energy sources.)

It's important to note that the use of electricity worldwide has been increasing every year. But it is mathematically impossible to maintain those two different curves -- declining total energy, increasing electricity -- for very much longer.

(3) Yet electricity is also problematic from a engineer's point of view (and Duncan is an engineer) because the equipment is always very fragile. It takes very little to knock out what has been called "the largest machine in history," the North American grid. It took very little to cause the big blackout of eastern North America in 2003. The problem is certainly intensified by the fact that so much of that grid consists of obsolete equipment that self-serving politicians prefer not to talk about. The mechanical fragility of electricity is what will make it the most-evident signal that our house of cards is about to tumble.

So, yes, it's possible that the problem of the "mechanics" of electricity will be visible before that of its "energy." But from a larger perspective it can be seen that it's the declining energy supply that is causing the mechanical failure. It's been said several times, by various people, that the US is operating with a Third World infrastructure. Everything is done with an eye to saving money, everything is bargain-basement economy, everything is being done "on the cheap" (even if the bankers and the generals never go hungry). But that bargain-basement economy in turn is caused by the vast, overall problem of resource decline. The mechanics and the energy are a curious conundrum, or maybe just an example of a vicious circle, a chain reaction, a feedback mechanism.

The shortage of natural resources, in other words, means that the US, like other countries, is becoming impoverished, and therefore cannot replace 1960s equipment. (Of course, if less was spent on war then more money would be freed up, but that's academic because the whole point of fighting so many wars at once is to maintain a grip on the fossil-fuel supplies and other resources.) At the same time, the biggest danger isn't the mechanical one, which admittedly can be fixed for a few billion dollars. The biggest problem is that sources of energy have been declining since 1979. That problem isn't fixable for any amount of money.

We may need to distinguish more clearly between those two types of major blackouts: (A) those caused by mechanical failure and (B) those caused by lack of energy source (coal, natural gas, uranium, whatever). The two would take place, and also would be observed, in different ways, although of course the two are related: a mechanical failure is most likely, after all, when there is an increase in the use of electricity.

Type A is exemplified by the big one of August 14, 2003 in northeastern North America. A small mechanical failure causes an unpredictable and instant failure of electrical power over a large area. There is no warning and no means of taking precautions, and the failure is total darkness, not merely a dimming. On the other hand, power is restored in a matter of hours or days.

Type B is common in many parts of the world today, and even California has seen this on occasion. In July 2012, 700 million people in India lost power through mechanical failure, but this was exacerbated by overload. The failure of power may take the form of either "brownouts" or "rolling blackouts." "Brownouts" are reductions in voltage, not always noticeable except perhaps by erratic behavior from the TV or a grunt from the refrigerator. "Rolling blackouts," on the other hand, are total (or near-total) shut-downs of power, and these may be planned and announced, moving from one neighborhood to another and cutting off all but essential services.

Duncan does not seem to distinguish these two types clearly, although he does refer to brownouts and rolling blackouts. But it may be that he is wrong to speak of Type B (as I call it) resulting in a "cliff" with sudden catastrophic results. A massive failure of electricity due to energy shortage (Type B) would quite possibly not be as swift as Duncan implies, at least in the early years of collapse, mainly because there is a good deal of waste that could be eliminated beforehand. However, even if this second type may at first seem less harmful than a mechanical failure, the difference is that the problem will eventually last more than a few hours or days. In fact, when the energy shortage is global, i.e. there is a permanent decline in fuels, there will come a point at which the lights go out everywhere, never to come on again.

How can the average person deal with all this on a daily basis? In the short term and on the small scale, it's possible to prepare for electrical failures by maintaining a good supply of water, candles, batteries, matches, canned food, toilet paper, and cash (since all business will be "cash only"). The car's gas tank should be kept topped up, for whatever that practice is worth, because the pumps won't be working without electricity, even if there is any gas down below the pumps. But short-term answers are not the same as long-term ones. We might remember Iraq's much longer problem of inadequate electrical power, the effect of war. As the days slide into months, the priorities will begin to change: dysentery, for example, can set in from inadequate water supplies. And that in itself would be only the beginning of the long-term troubles. Imagine a world without transportation, communication, finance, mining, manufacturing, or agriculture, at least in any forms with which we are familiar.


Duncan, R. C. (2000, November 13). The peak of world oil production and the road to the Olduvai Gorge. Geological Society of America, Summit 2000. Reno, Nevada. Retrieved from

------. (2005-06, Winter). The Olduvai theory: Energy, population, and industrial civilization. The Social Contract. Retrieved from

Margonelli, L. (2012, 13 July). Electric forecast calls for increasing blackouts. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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