U.S. Woefully Unprepared for a Blackout Like India’s: Analysis
By Glenn Harlan Reynolds
August 6, 2012
Two major blackouts last week left hundreds of millions of Indians in the dark. PM contributor Glenn Harlan Reynolds says despite its advanced grid, the U.S. needs major improvements in infrastructure and preparedness to be ready for a major power loss.
Last week, India suffered two huge blackouts. Tuesday’s cut power to 370 million people; another one on Wednesday blacked out 670 million people, making it the worst blackout in the history of humanity.
Talking about this with a colleague, I said, "Don’t worry. That can’t happen here." "Why not?" she asked. "Because we don’t have 670 million people," I replied.
This wasn’t the comfort she was looking for.
The specific causes of India’s blackouts aren’t likely to be a problem in the United States. India’s electrical grid was brought down in part by state governments drawing more power from the grid than they were supposed to; American power grids are better managed. And while India’s grid has been strained by rapid economic growth, America currently faces no such problem.
But don’t get too comfortable. America’s grid has its own problems, and not enough is being done to address them. And, ironically, because American electric supplies have generally been pretty reliable, we’re in some ways worse-equipped to handle a major power outage than India is. That’s also something we should probably be doing something about, both at the national level and as individuals.
Modern civilization is astoundingly dependent on electricity. If the power goes out for very long, pretty much everything stops: water (you need pumps), gasoline (most gas stations don’t have backup generators to pump the gas), traffic (no stoplights), sewage (pumps again), and, eventually, even things like natural gas supplies (more pumps) and cellphone service (cell towers usually have backup power, but for most it’s only short-term). Stop the electricity for a day and it’s inconvenient; stop it for a few days and people die; stop it for a week or more over a big area and civilization itself is in peril.
The more advanced state of the U.S. grid is a mixed blessing. The ability to "wheel" power over long distances means that local problems can be ameliorated by power from elsewhere. But it also means that a failure in one area can, under the wrong circumstances, bring down service over wide areas. Modern smart-grid technologies currently being designed and deployed can make the power net nimbler and able to adapt more quickly to changes in loads. On the other hand, all that computerization makes the system more vulnerable to software bugs, viruses, cyber attacks, or even electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) damage from a solar storm or a nuclear attack.
Even worse: Americans aren’t as prepared for power outages as Indians are. In India—or Nigeria, where I have family—no one is surprised when the power goes out. As a result, everyone has a backup plan. Blackouts are so common that dealing with them isn’t really a backup plan at all—just part of the plan.
Here, that’s not the case. Most critical operations do have backup generators, and so do some not-so-critical ones (The law school where I teach has a gigantic Caterpillar diesel generator, even though an interruption in law teaching probably wouldn’t threaten the well-being of the community.) But coverage is surprisingly spotty. Some cellular carriers equip their cells with backup generators, but others don’t—and the industry successfully fought to kill an FCC requirement for backup power. Most gas stations don’t have backup generators, which means that in an extended power outage, the gas in your car’s tank (or in the cans for your gas-powered generator at home) is all the gas you’re going to have. So when extended blackouts hit, things are worse in the U.S., as people discovered recently when millions in the Washington, D.C., area were without power for days.
That means two things: First, we have to do what we can to harden our infrastructure to make the threat of blackouts less likely. Second, we should be prepared for the worst.
On the infrastructure-hardening front, approaches range from the obvious, like burying power lines likely to be brought down by storms and making sure there’s enough generating capacity to meet peak loads, to the less obvious, like ensuring that there are adequate stocks of important components (like transformers) to do disaster recovery. Keeping those stocks is hard, because the parts are expensive and nowadays often imported from overseas. Earlier this year, for example, power industry and Homeland Security engineers practiced bringing in and installing three "recovery transformers" in a test to see how quickly they could replace the big transformers found at power substations in an emergency.
The experiment was troubling: Although engineers have the technical skills to do the job, the transformers often have a two-year order horizon. The substation transformers are so big that they have to be shipped by rail, and to make things worse, rail no longer serves many areas where existing substations are found. So the U.S. is having to pursue alternative means: The "recovery" transformers split the task of one unit into three smaller ones that are easier to move. They’re also developing transformers that work in multiple applications, to reduce the number of different models that will have to be kept in stock.
Right now, if more than a few transformers were knocked out at once, the affected areas could be left without service for months or even years. These current efforts will reduce the time to recovery, but only if the U.S. begins maintaining sufficient stockpiles. That’s only the beginning: Other issues involve securing power-control and other utility hardware against hackers (current security is often embarrassingly poor) and the physical security of control centers and key components against sabotage or accident. Addressing these issues is important, because a major grid-down incident lasting weeks or months wouldn’t just be an inconvenience. It would be a catastrophe.
Stopping the power from going out should be our first priority, but it’s also smart to prepare for a "soft landing" when blackouts do happen. Here there should be two priorities: first, systems that fail gracefully rather than catastrophically; second, long-term backup power for critical systems.
Fortunately, failing gracefully is usually comparatively cheap. Battery backups for traffic lights may keep them going for only a few hours, but those few hours let people get home and off the roads where immediate failure might produce gridlock. Backups for mass-transit systems let people get off the train at a station instead of being stuck somewhere underground. Even a few hours of battery backup for cellphone service lets people respond to the outage and make plans with their loved ones and co-workers. (For families and businesses, having some sort of plan in advance is even better, of course).
For critical systems, the backup power needs to be robust and long-lasting. I’m talking about hospitals, phone/Internet providers, power plants (which need their own backup power to do the repairs), other utility companies, police, public-health facilities, and more. Many facilities with emergency generators rely on natural gas for power. That’s fine as long as the gas is working, but the gas company needs power to run its distribution systems. Many other generators have diesel or propane tanks, but those are often intended only for short-term use, with supplies adequate for only a few days. For the more important systems, we need to be thinking about longer time horizons and about ways to refuel them if they’re needed for even longer. You want the water and sewage systems to keep working even if the lights are out.
Where do people get food if the grocery stores don’t have power? For outages of a few days, this is a nuisance; for longer ones, it becomes a serious problem. Communities should have plans set up in advance.
So should individuals. At the low end of individual preparation, inexpensive solar/hand-crank radios provide information and usually will power an LED light and charge a cellphone. Stepping up, auto inverters or small generators can provide useful backup power for a few days. If you’re really serious, you can always put in a whole-house backup generator and power it from a buried propane or diesel tank that will last for days or weeks, though that becomes pretty pricey. Likewise, you want to be prepared to get by for a while if it’s hard to get food, water, vital medications, or other supplies.
Defense against blackouts and other dropouts in crucial infrastructure is best done in layers. On some of these, we can learn from India; on others, we will have to think for ourselves. Better that we do so sooner than later.
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