The Global View

US power blackouts leave record numbers in the dark

We’ve heard over and over again in recent years that a smarter, more technologically advanced energy grid will help make power supplies more reliable, prevent outages and resolve failures more quickly.

Judging by the latest review of blackouts in the US, those improvements can’t come fast enough.

Despite the growing number of smart-metering and smart-grid projects rolling out across the country, electricity failures in the US last year affected more than twice as many people as in 2010, according to Eaton Corporation’s annual Blackout Tracker report. While the total number of outages dropped slightly — from 3,149 in 2010 to 3,071 in 2011 — the number of people left in the dark at some point shot up to 41.8 million, compared to 17.5 million the year before. That’s an increase of 139 percent.

Hurricane Irene, which cut a swath of destruction from North Carolina to Maine from Aug. 26 to 29, can be blamed for part of that increase: more than six million people experienced power outages related to the storm. Other major blackout events last year included a possible human error that left some four million people across southern California and parts of Arizona without power in September, a late October snowstorm that affected around 1.75 million people along the East Coast, a damaging outbreak of thunderstorms in the Chicago area that affected some 700,000 people and a January winter storm that knocked out power for more than 400,000 electricity customers in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia.

Those five events caused outages for around 12.85 million people. Not counting that handful of massive failures, though, you still end up with 11.45 million more people experiencing power losses in 2011 than in 2010. Why such an increase?

Smart-grid expert Massoud Amin, professor of electrical & computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and director of the university’s Technological Leadership Institute, points to a steady decline in grid-related research-and-development spending in the US.

“The US electrical grid has been plagued by ever more and ever worse blackouts over the past 15 years,” Amin writes in a recent article. “What happened? Starting in 1995, the amortization and depreciation rate has exceeded utility construction expenditures. In other words, for the past 15 years, utilities have harvested more than they have planted.”

Bringing transmission systems to where they need to be and eventually building a smart, self-healing grid that could stem the tide of blackouts won’t be cheap, Amin acknowledges — we’re looking at a bill of at least $165 billion for the smart grid alone. But he says such improvements would more than pay for themselves over a few years by dramatically reducing business and other losses related to power failures.

Will decision-makers listen? At a time when budget cuts and austerity measures are de rigueur, there’s not much cause for optimism. In other words, if you live in the US, keep a flashlight and spare batteries handy.