Researchers predict spreading blackouts as cities grow larger

Electricity blackouts will become more common as surging power demand outpaces public and private utilities' abilities to provide a continuous and reliable flow of power to customers, a new research paper asserts.

The problem, while global in scope, could be especially pronounced in urban areas where old and often fragile power distribution systems are being tested in ways not conceived of a generation ago, states the research paper that examined the causes behind 50 blackout events in 26 countries since 2003, including several major U.S. outages.

"Understanding the nature of blackouts is more than just a record of past failures," researchers Hugh Byrd and Steve Matthewman write in the Journal of Urban Technology. "[B]lackouts are dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity, and as urban areas become more compact, with greater consequences."

Their research paper, titled "Exergy and the City: The Technology and Sociology of Power (Failure)," is the latest in a series of studies examining grid failures and warning that the world should "prepare for the prospect of coping without electricity as instances of complete power failure become increasingly common."

Byrd is a professor of architecture at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom. Matthewman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.


But one leading U.S. grid expert cautioned that blackout risk and causes differ widely from region to region and even country to country. As such, she said, "it is hard to generalize this issue across both emerging and established economies/nations."

Complexity of U.S. power grid grows

While developing countries are focused on providing basic electricity service to hundreds of millions of people, the North American grid "is extremely complex, and the complexity is only growing, so the opportunity for things to go wrong is also increasing," said Becky Harrison, chief executive officer of the GridWise Alliance, a public-private effort to improve grid performance and electricity reliability.

"However, that does not mean they are unmanageable," Harrison added. "It does mean that we have to pay attention and address the new challenges that are emerging."

The Byrd-Matthewman paper focuses considerable attention on systemic grid failures such as the cascading outages that caused one of the worst blackouts in U.S. history in August 2003. It also addresses issues around deregulation and privatization of electricity markets and the growth of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar power and how such resources affect reliability.

"Throughout our study, we observed a number of network failures due to inadequate energy, whether through depletion of resources such as oil and coal, or through the vagaries of the climate in the creation of renewable energy," Byrd said in a news release issued by the University of Lincoln, a research institution in east-central England about 140 miles north of London.

The paper estimates the economic damage caused by power outages in the United States alone at $25 billion to $180 billion annually, although the indirect costs of such disruptions could be up to five times greater.

While growing reliance on distributed generation and off-grid power sources is helping to address the issue of centralized grid failures, the authors maintain that energy security remains a significant concern for countries with ample renewable energy resources, including countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that rely on large hydrodams to meet electricity demand.

"Rain, wind and sunshine are not always dependable and are becoming less predictable with climate change," they wrote.

Energy sources proliferate

The authors also point to the trend of deregulation and privatization of energy resources as trends that have "exacerbated blackout risk," in part because they have allowed for the separation of generation, transmission and distribution services and created barriers that inhibit communication across these highly complex systems.

"In a competitive environment, reliability and profits may be at cross-purposes -- single corporations can put their own interests ahead of the shared grid, and spare capacity is reduced in the name of cost saving," Matthewman said in a statement.

Harrison of the GridWise Alliance noted that many of the challenges ahead lie not with large power providers and utilities, but with the proper integration of hundreds of thousands of small, distributed energy resources that collectively will account for a major share of the nation's power.

"Since many of these new distributed energy resources will be developed on the 'customer's side of the meter' and not subject to today's regulatory environment, thought must be given to how to effectively integrate and leverage these resources and their capabilities," she said.

To help facilitate that process, the GridWise Alliance is partnering with the Energy Department's Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability to create a new vision for the future electric grid, including questions of what kind of electricity delivery system best advances the "public good."

"If we handle this transition right, the growth in distributed energy resources will make our overall system more reliable and resilient against these types of major outage events," she said.

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