Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Responding to Collapse, Part 10: the future of the power grid

Sunset over Lake Huron

In this series of posts I've been advising my readers that moving to a small town remote from large population centres, in an area that can supply the basic necessities of water, food and firewood, is a prudent way of coping with the ongoing collapse of BAU (Business as Usual). With the caveat that some advance preparation will be needed to ensure successful use of those resources.

In the next few posts in this series, we'll look at some of the details of how BAU will collapse and how you can prepare to weather that collapse. In the immediate future infrastructure breakdowns will get more frequent and longer until finally it's no longer practical to rely on BAU for the necessities of life. It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas.

And while I'll mainly be talking about infrastructure breakdowns we should remember that interruptions of service can occur for a couple of other reasons.

The first has to do with the way our economy is organized and how we choose to provide vital services such as power, water, sewers, housing, food, communications, transportation, education, health care and so forth.

Today most of the world's nations are capitalistic, with a distinct neo-liberal flavour. Under such conditions, companies are operated to make a profit and other goals, such as the public good, are strictly secondary. So when a "for profit" company finds its business becoming less profitable they must find ways to increase their charges or to supply less for the same fees or to quit supplying customers in less profitable areas altogether. And if they don't do those things they will either be bought out by companies that will, or they'll suffer bankruptcy. If there doesn't appear to be much chance that another company could make a good profit in the same business then it will never be reestablished. And if the public was relying on that company to provide vital services, then we are just out of luck.

Of course there are other ways of organizing an economy, and in particular other ways of setting up companies to provide infrastructure services. But the argument is often made that for profit companies operating in a free market are more efficient. I would question if there has ever been any such thing as a free market, and whether it would function as predicted in any case. Efficiency in this case is defined as the amount of return on share holders' investments, and has nothing to do with providing a high quality and reliable service to your customers.

But perhaps we should set all that aside in order to focus on the really critical thing, which is the difference between the way such companies work in growing economies versus contracting economies. In a growing economy it is relatively easy to make a profit and do so while supplying a service for the public good. But when the economy begins to contract that becomes more and more difficult for "for profit" companies.

Governments can set up non-profit organizations whose primary goal is to provide services for the public good and they are likely to last longer in a contracting economy. In my experience, contrary to typical capitalist propaganda, they can also be quite efficient. But as the economy contracts so will tax revenues and eventually governments will have to cut back on the services they provide. With good planning though, they can do this in a controlled manner with lots of advanced warning, and give people time to adapt to the situation.

As the economy gets even weaker, co-operatives organized by the people who need the services hold considerable promise. I'll have more to say about this over the next few posts.

The second thing is that if you rely on BAU to make a living, you will find that your own economic circumstances are declining. When you can no longer afford the services you have come to rely on, you'll have find ways to provide them for yourself, and in the process learn how to get by with less, like it or not.

I can consume along with the best of them, and there are certainly all kinds of things that it would be useful to have as we try to become more self reliant. But don't worry too much if you can't afford some of the shiny toys I'll be mentioning in future posts. As well trained consumers we may feel that buying things must be the solution to the problems that face us, but it isn't. Actually, there is no solution to the fix the world is in at the moment, and the best we can do is adapt to the changing conditions. Part of that is learning to get by while consuming less. This is hard for me and I'll bet it's hard for you too. That's why I talked first about preparing by become part of your new community (in posts 7 and 8 of this series), rather that the less important preparations that involve accumulating "stuff".

Back 2012, when I started this blog, the authorities recommended that you be prepared to weather emergencies lasting for as long as three days (72 hours). They were basically saying, "don't rely on us to be there immediately—it may take as long as 72 hours before help arrives." In the meantime, this has been changed to two weeks in some areas. Is emergency response capability declining, or are they expecting more lengthy and severe emergencies? I suspect both. Of course serious "preppers" are laughing at this—they'd recommend that you have supplies on hand for a year or two. I don't disagree, but you have to start somewhere. And as collapse deepens those longer intervals to prepare for will come to seem more reasonable.

Power Outages

Power outages will probably be the most frequent infrastructure failure you'll have to cope with. Short outages have relatively minor impacts, but because electricity is at the heart of so much that goes on in modern civilization, as outages stretch out they start to effect more and more things.

Eventually, it seems very likely that the power grid in many, if not most, areas will cease to function. I encounter two different responses to this idea. Many people cannot conceive that their 24 hour a day, essentially infinite supply of power could every come to an end. Others are fixated on the idea of a sudden and hard crash which will bring the whole of industrial civilization to an end, including the power grid.

I'm somewhere in between, holding what I think is a more detailed and nuanced opinion. Most of the rest of this post is going to be spent talking about how the slow decline of the power grid will go, leaving the responses I would recommend for the next post.

Power outages can be as simple as a utility pole getting knocked over during a traffic accident, to as complex as the grid failures that happened in northeastern North America in 1965 and 2003. And to take it even further, EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) from nuclear weapons or coronal mass ejections (solar flares) can do huge damage to electrical girds which may be very hard to recover from. But I think some of the most common and serious problems with the grid will come from three specific areas:

  • The first is equipment failure due to age and/or lack of maintenance, aggravated by overloads such as air conditioning load during summer heat waves. As the economy continues to contract power companies are going to find themselves short of capital and less able to invest in their own systems, leaving those systems more susceptible to failure. /li>
  • The second will be damage due to storms that are growing more frequent and more intense due to climate change—things like high winds, tornados and ice storms in particular. Lengthy outages will happen when there are widespread weather related problems combined with shortages of spare parts and limited manpower to install them. Those latter two problems will come mainly from cash strapped utilities trying to save money.
  • The third is sabotage. The grid is very exposed to a saboteur who knows what he is doing, and because of its geographically diffuse nature, very hard to secure. As collapse intensifies, there will be increased civil unrest—more angry people looking for easy targets that symbolize the establishment. The grid is certainly one such target.

Of course, these concerns apply to the grid as it exists today, using conventional generation. It seems there is going to be a serious attempt to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, primarily solar and wind. Those who are pushing for a "Green New Deal" are telling people that we can use wind and solar to replace fossil fuels, and that in the process more jobs will be created and we'll actually end up more prosperous. This is a very unrealistic dream and just off the top of my head I can think of four serious problems with it:

  1. What solar and wind produce is electricity. But electricity supplies only 18 to 20% of our current energy use. Most of the rest comes directly from coal, oil and natural gas, and those fuels are used in ways that will be difficult, if not outright impossible, to replace with electricity.

    The main issue is that a battery is not nearly as effective a way to store energy as a tank of diesel fuel. And there are definite physical limitations on how much better batteries can get— we can probably improve them by a factor of two, but that's about it. Despite what we keep hearing in the news, it simply isn't practical to use batteries to power airplanes or long distance heavy transport by road, rail or sea. The quantity of batteries needed, and the size and weight of those batteries, is the problem.

    There are many industrial processes that use coal or natural gas for heat. Replacing those fuels with electricity may be theoretically possible but we haven't, for the most part, even started to develop ways to do so, much less begun to implement them.

  2. Phasing out fossil fuels would require using renewables to supply much larger quantities of electricity than we are currently using. But there are fundamental problems with using renewables to produce even part of the comparatively small amount of electricity we use now.

    One aspect of running a power grid that the general public is largely unaware of is that generation must be matched exactly to the load. Since load is something the grid operator cannot control to any great extent, generation that is "dispatchable"—that can be turned on and off on demand and ramped up and down as required—is very important. Conventional generation is dispatchable to varying degrees but renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are intermittent and for the most part not under the control of the grid operator—the very opposite of dispatchable. As such, renewables only exacerbate the problems of running a grid, especially given the lack of feasible large scale storage technologies. Yes, I know there are a number of storage technologies available but none of them are economical to use on the scale that would be required for use in a power grid with intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

    The concept of a "smart grid" which gives greater control of both generation and load offers hope of addressing these problems to some minor degree, but only at the price of adding complexity to the system. And adding complexity never increases reliability.

  3. The immediate reason for switching away from fossil fuels is to reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere in order to combat climate change. But no one seems to be thinking of the carbon footprint of switching away from carbon. The switchover to renewables would be a massive undertaking powered mainly by fossil fuels, and the amount of CO2 being released would greatly increase during that effort.

    Much of this construction effort would also require large quantities of steel and concrete. Making steel and concrete involves the release of CO2, regardless of where the energy comes from—it's inherent to the chemistry of the processes involved.

    So it is by no means obvious that we can get off fossil fuels and onto renewables without creating an even worse climate crisis that the one we are currently facing.

  4. Renewables have a very low EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). A high EROEI is essential to the functioning of a modern industrial economy--money is just accounting, energy is really what makes the economy go. Any country which adds a large quantity of renewables to its energy mix will lower its overall average EROEI, making it more difficult to support a growing economy and a high tech industrial society. So even if we could somehow manage to switch over entirely to renewables, we'd have trouble sustaining a high enough level of technology to maintain and repair solar and wind generation facilities. And replacing them when they wear out would be a real stretch. Switching to renewables is something we might be able to do once, but then we'd be in big trouble.

All this is of course based on not having to change our lifestyles, not having to accept a lower level of prosperity and consumption. Indeed one frequently hears people talking about increasing economic growth in order to bring the poor parts of the world up to our level of consumption. It is clear to me that this is not going to happen and that what we really need to do is reduce our levels of consumption down to what can be supported without fossil fuels, using local, sustainable, low tech renewables. It is also clear to me that we will not do this voluntarily, that the majority of our efforts will go into maintaining business as usual regardless of the consequences.

Give all these factors time to work and it will become difficult to continue running the power grid as a whole. Some parts of the gird will simply quit working. Others that have proved unreliable, which place the grid as a whole at risk, will eventually have to be excluded from the grid. These islands will grow until the grid as we know it falls apart.

There will be a few areas where generating equipment will continue to function for a long time and will be able to supply local load. Again, the matching generation and load will be a problem since most such generation comes in large chunks and is a long way from large amounts of load. The most hopeful situations are small hydro (water) powered generators, which can be run at less than full capacity and adjust quickly to match varying loads.

Anyway, it seems clear that we can indeed expect more frequent and longer power outages. But what are the effects of these outages, and what can we do to mitigate them?

The effects of power outages

When the power goes out, you lose the lights, heat, cooling, cooking equipment, refrigeration and so forth in your own home. Even most oil, gas and wood heating systems rely on electricity for control, ignition and circulating fans. Then there are all the services that comes to you from outside your home, that you rely on to just work, but which need electricity to do that.

In general, the most critical services run off batteries which are kept fully charged as long as the power is on. When the power goes out, these services keep right on running as if nothing had happened, at least until the batteries are discharged. The batteries for the controls in power stations are rated for eight hours. The batteries in cell phone towers are rated for two to four hours.

Everything I'm finding on the internet says that the central switching stations for land line telephone service should keep working even during long power outages, which implies both batteries and backup generators. I have some doubts about this, and I'll be keeping an eye out for more detailed information.

Many slightly less critical services have generators that start automatically with only a brief interruption when the power goes out and run as long as there is fuel (usually diesel fuel) in the tank. If arrangements have been made to refill that tank, then this can go on for quite a long time.

Even less critical services than these can have a portable generator hooked up to them if need be. This would include facilities operating on battery power, if the power is off so long that the batteries need to be recharged.

Most service stations don't have backup power so you likely won't be able to get fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane) while the power is off. During long outages the many supply chains that are powered by gasoline and/or diesel fuel will be in trouble.

Natural gas pipelines have to be pressurized to keep to gas flowing through them. Some of the pumps used to do this are powered by natural gas, some by electricity. And I suspect that at least some of the controls for the gas powered pumps are electrical. So your natural gas supply, at least in some areas, will be compromised during electrical outages.

The pumps in municipal water and sewage systems need electrical power too. Some may have backup generators, but not all. If you live on a farm or in a very small town, your toilet is likely gravity feed into a septic system and weeping bed, and will work as long as you have water to flush them. Or perhaps you have already set up a composting toilet which requires no power at all. Your water supply is probably from you own well, with a pump driven by an electric motor that uses 240V AC (if you are in North America). Even if you have a generator, you may need an electrician to help you hook it up to that motor.

Refrigeration of food in grocery stores and pharmaceuticals in pharmacies and hospitals will be jeopardized. Fortunately our local hospital does have a backup generator.

Radio and TV can be important sources of information during emergencies. But you will likely find that only a very few of your local stations are set up to keep broadcasting during power outages.

It would also be great if internet service could continue during power outages. I understand it some areas it does, but we get our internet through the local cable TV company, and even short outages to their facilities knock out our internet connection and our cable TV service, even if the power is still on at our place. Your situation may be different—I hope so.

Oddly, or so it seems to me, most traffic lights aren't backed up in any way and stop working when the power is off.

ATMs won't be working, nor the systems that allows us to pay for things by credit and debit cards. Even if you do have cash in hand, you may find many retail outlets are unable to sell you anything when their cash registers and product code scanners aren't working. Many of them may just lock their doors for the duration of the outage.

Not all of them, though—I was quite impressed during a recent outage when I saw the guy behind the counter at a nearby convenience store beavering away with a cash box, battery operated calculator and a notebook to record sales in. It can be done, but one hopes the prices are marked clearly on items rather than encoded in UPCs. This is an example of an individual (or maybe his manager) taking the situation in hand and keeping things working rather than sitting back and letting them fall apart.

No doubt I am missing many of the potential effects of long power outages, but I think this gives you the flavour of what you'll be facing. Next time I'll talk about how you can mitigate the effects of power outages, both short and long, and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid.

Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:


Don Hayward said...

Of course, you know I have no arguments with your points. I would say that the history of railways in Canada post WW2 is a good example of capitalist, "market-driven" abandonment of service. rational government policy would have been to expand CN instead of selling it and running many branch lines as a service. But you know my railway bias.
I will just repeat my thinking that the only way to have a positive outcome post-collapse is for there to be massive population declines both locally and globally.
I am actually not a rapid collapse thinker since we have been in collapse for some decades; however, I do think that we will reach a tipping point that will lead to a sudden acceleration of the process, but that will also be uneven in both time and place.
Do you have any free afternoons in July?

Anonymous said...

"Oddly, or so it seems to me, most traffic lights aren't backed up in any way and stop working when the power is off."

I think that's for a fairly simple reasons; except in very rare and unusual situations, traffic flows fine in most places when the traffic lights go out. I think this is a combination of two factors:

One, people are far more able to cooperate on the fly then we usually remember. Everyone stops, let the motorist who got there first go first, and in a tie the motorist to the right wins. That's all you really need for smaller junctions, and even larger ones work fine under those rules if everyone is courteous and drives with appropriate levels of speed and caution. Now, your junction between two four or six lanes roads is going to be pretty hairy in that situation. That's not a problem with human courtesy, it's because:

Two, we have an enormous oversupply of traffic lights in this country. We use them in foolish places in which we don't need to or shouldn't, because American motorists are coddled and spoiled and enormously privileged. We fail utterly to deploy obviously superior techniques (circles, more fully-controlled access, etc.) because it would make drivers feel a little bit of anxiety. That's really the ultimate reason, and it's pretty silly.

Irv Mills said...

@ Anonymous
You may be right--where I live a dead traffic light is to be treated as a 4 way stop, and I've seen people coping quite well with this, once they catch on. It would probably go more smoothly if it happened more often.

I just hate traffic circles. A quite a few of them have started to appear in this rural area, as alternatives to traffic lights. But very few of the locals have any experience with them, so they don't work as well as they could.

Irv Mills said...

@ Don Hayward
Yes, railways are an excellent example of what I am talking about. As collapse continues, I think we'll reach a point where a good railway network would prove quite useful. If we hadn't torn up all the tracks between the small towns in this parts of rural Ontario and turned the rights of way into hiking trails. When we need them most, we won't have the wherewithal to rebuild those tracks.

Joe Clarkson said...

Irv, I think you are understating the importance of electricity to modern civilization. For most people in a modern country, a permanent loss of the electric grid will be fatal. Management of modern supply chains requires a huge communication infrastructure that depends on electricity and there are very few people that can live without access to a functional grocery store.

I could go on and on about the multitude of life-and-death dependencies requiring access to electricity, but I think it is safe to say that without the electrical grid, modern civilization comes to a grinding halt. And this is why I am a proponent of the likelihood of a fast crash; civilization will continue to stumble on as long as the grid is up, even in the event of other stressors like declining EROI and mineral resource depletion, but once the grid fails it's all over. If it is true that, as you say, "Eventually, it seems very likely that the power grid in many, if not most, areas will cease to function", then when that time comes a horrible crisis of survival will begin.

It is unfortunate that it has come to this, since it didn't have to happen. Without the temptations of fossil fuels, we could have developed several kinds of low tech (19th century technology) solar and wind energy to supplement hydro and biomass and proceeded to develop a sustainable energy system that would have allowed a 19th century level civilization to endure (with population constraints of course). Just take a look at the kinds of solar technology Frank Schuman was working on around the turn of the 19th to 20th century.... His parabolic collectors were every bit as good as those produced in the 1980s.

There are also very cheap and low tech ways of storing solar energy for weeks and months, but there are just a few demonstration projects underway, when by now we should be getting the majority of our energy from solar and hydro. Here is an example .... I tried to interest the solar thermal industry in a similar, but even better, system in 2008-09, but no one was interested in long-term solar thermal storage then. Even then it was probably too late to get going, but it is now certainly too late, especially since there is still very little interest in solar thermal energy among the powers that be, much less a crash program of reducing fossil fuel use.

I am looking forward to your future articles on how to survive without electricity (at least from the grid). Please let me know when they post.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson
The thing is that a planet is a big place and it's hard to make anything happen everywhere at once. "The grid" isn't a single thing, but a number of separate grids (9 or 10 here in north America, depending on how you count them). They are set up so that any one (or more) of these grids can go down without effecting the others. I can see that I should have said more about this in my post. Oh well.

A really bad solar flare causing a powerful EMP is about the worst thing I can imagine happening to the "grids", and even then the side of the planet facing away from the flare will see much less damage.

So I have to be honest that I find it difficult to think how a hard fast crash could be made to happen even if you tried really hard. But a long and bumpy decline, no problem--we're already nicely into such a situation. And during that decline some places will be much worse off than others. For a while yet remote rural places will still be suffering economic decline faster than the cities. But at some point that will change and the cities will start to really suffer. I expect a major population dieoff (90% at a guess) and most of the people who die will be in the large population centres. But it won't happen all at once.

The end point of such a decline will see many areas without sufficient local energy resources that can be used to generate electricity with the level of technology that will be available. But there will be quite a few areas that will have sufficient quantities of biomass, wind or falling water that they may be able to set up small local distribution grids. This will have an immensely positive effect on their standard of living. Even intermittent power from wind can still be useful.

There will be quite a bit in the way of salvageable resources left over from our present civilization that can be used. And some of us will get a head start before things fall apart completely.

I agree with you that much of this doesn't have to happen, even my "long and bumpy" decline could be mitigated to a great extent with a little foresight. But foresight is in short supply among those who are running things.

I'd be glad to let you know when I publish a post, and to communicate more outside of this forum, but it would help if I had your email address. If you're anything like me, you're probably reluctant to put your email in a comment here for all the world to see. I'd suggest putting it in a comment and I'll delete your comment as soon as I see it. I'm going to be away for a couple of days, but I'll post a comment here when I get back and I'm ready to do this, if you like.

Joe Clarkson said...


I thought that you had my email, but maybe only Blogger gets the info from the commentor's identity. I think I am a follower, but maybe not. I will sign up to follow if that will get me notifications of your posts.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson
I think signing up as a follower will get you notification. Why not give it a try and let me know if it works.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe Clarkson
Or you can "subscribe" to my RSS feed--see the section just below the list of followers on the upper right. If you subscribe to "posts" that will definitely get you notification of when I publish a new post. I am little vague on what you have to do after you click to subscribe--I believe it involves another piece of software, an RSS reader. I use Microsoft Outlook, which I also use for email. If you Google "RSS reader", you may find something that helps.

Dingo said...

Just stumbled across your Blog. I've read quite a number of your posts and I'm liking what I'm reading. Sensible Prep. It'll take a while for me to overcome all the militia rubbish pretending to be prep I've consumed over the years.

Personally I'm a huge fan of Bison Prepper and Dark Green Survival Research (Canadian) blogs

Irv Mills said...

@ Dingo
Nice to hear from you, Dingo, and I'm glad you're enjoying this blog.

I really need to write a "About this blog" page, but failing that, have a look at the Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo series of posts, which nicely sums up what I'm talking about here.

I've been reading C5's work at the Dark Green Mountain Research Centre for a while now and we've exchanged a few email. I like his "adapting" ideas.

I hadn't heard of the Bison Prepper, but I'm reading it now and it looks good so far. Both those bloggers have a very different style from mine, but when you get down to the heart of what they are saying, we have a lot in common.