Electricity Apocalypse Soon?
At the core of the major blackouts is the lethal combination of Nature and the human preoccupation with economic "efficiency"
The major blackouts in New York and London, in Denmark and now throughout Italy, in conjunction with the overall stress caused to power grids in Europe because of the long, hot summer, illustrate real-case scenarios for chaos. Yet are these mere warnings of a possible major catastrophe set to hit the on-line world in the near future?
This past Sunday all of Italy found itself groping in the dark. A major blackout had cut power to some fifty million people, paralysing transport networks. Although the blackout occurred when businesses were not likely to be open and industries running, it nevertheless caused major problems, especially in Rome. The Italian capital happened to be running a program called "white night" in where museums were open all night long free of charge to the general public; extra public transport was provided to the various events.
As a result, more people were out and about then usual. Moreover, as the weather was also bad, many ended up spending the night in underground tunnels and train stations; some were even caught in elevators.
The Italian blackout also caused problems in other countries as well, such as Hungary. Two Hungarian power blocks were shut down, but the Paks nuclear plant was able to handle the surge and avoided the blackout from spreading in Hungary. By noon everything was back to normal.
All this comes at a time when many industrial countries are facing similar problems. On August 15th, unprecedented chaos broke out as the result of a major blackout along the eastern coast of the US and Canada. Dozens of major cities were paralysed for hours and tens of thousands were trapped in subway tunnels. Two weeks later, London also suffered a similar situation as a forty minute blackout brought city-life to a standstill. As in New York, many became trapped in the tunnels of the underground.
The mid-August blackout wasn't the first of its kind in US history. In November 1965 30 million people were without power on the east coast and in Canada. Prior to this year, the last major blackout was in 1996. The worst, at least from a socio-political perspective, occurred on July 13th, 1977, when a lightening strike left 8 million New Yorkers without power. Within a few hours thousands of shops were robbed, vandalised, and set on fire. Damage was in the area of 60 million dollars.
As a result of these blackouts in the US -- and their after-effects -- attempts were made to deal with future problems. Six thousand power stations were subsequently linked together in order to circumvent and compensate for a blackout. The only problem was that a major blackout, especially during the heavy loads of the summer, threatens to cause a domino-effect and handicap the entire system. The likelihood of such a major blackout happening was high given the fact that more than half the power stations are in private hands and, in the interest of turning a handsome profit, upgrades to the system have been held back due to cost-cutting measures.
In order to play down the seriousness of the situation, experts stated that the major blackout in the US didn't pose a threat to the economy. The biggest area where losses were felt was at the motor industry centered in Detroit. Air transport also had a difficult time as many international flights were affected. However, other areas came through unscathed. The New York Stock Exchange, for instance, survived thanks to its own backup generators.
The blackouts bare the Achilles Heel of our our "information society"
As for the major blackout in Italy, the country-wide power outage has shown how vulnerable are those which depend on power from outside sources (apparently, a problem in Switzerland was the cause of the Italian blackout). But although people like to consume a lot of energy, few are willing to have the sight and, in some cases, the relative danger, of a power plant (especially if it's nuclear) nearby. It also illustrates the inherent weakness of globalisation and modern-day economics in which production and distribution networks are highly integrated and overly centralised.
Because of the chaos caused by major blackouts in New York, London and now all of Italy, many western countries have been re-evaluating their power grid systems. Most, however, continue to take a complacent attitude to the present state of affairs. In Hungary, for example, authorities stress that in the case of a major blackout the metro system in Budapest would still be able to run for about an hour. According to experts, it's unthinkable that a situation like what happened in the US, UK, or Italy in terms of a paralysed underground network would occur in the Hungarian capital. The metro system gets its power from several points, they argue, and in the case of a major blackout backup generators automatically provide enough power for metro cars to make it to the nearest station. To date, there hasn't been a case yet of the metro not running due to a power failure.
It would be foolhardy to believe, however, that because of such good fortune a problem isn't likely to happen. What is more, it lays bare the Achilles Heel of our digital era as our "information society" is wholly dependent on the electricity grid. Without electric power, public transport can't run, businesses can't operate, and people can't communicate. Whereas in the pre-digital days people were still able to go about their business during a blackout, albeit not very easily, it's near impossible nowadays as simple over-the-counter transactions are all handled by "smart" machines and computers. And as everyone gets use to living in a "cashless" society, when the ATMs don't work and your wallet is empty then you are really cashless.
Ironically, at the core of the problem is not terrorism or some metaphysical enigma, but the lethal combination of Mother Nature and the human preoccupation with economic "efficiency". Both the major US blackout and the one which affected all of Italy were caused by a fallen tree branch.
Precursor to a massive on-line blackout?
Already, there have been signs that present-day power grids are unable to cope with a little outside pressure. The effects of the long, dry, and hot summer is a case in point. Throughout Europe there was cause for concern. Indeed, at the time of the major US blackout, Hungary's largest hydro-electric plant at Ikervar on the Raba river introduced water rationing measures. Out of the five turbines, which generate a total of 2,200 kWH of energy, only the smallest was still running. At full capacity, the power station provides enough energy for three thousand people; by mid-August, it was running at a tenth of its normal capacity. Elsewhere, such as power plant at Gyongyos creek, the turbines were shut down because of low water levels.
At the end of the day, while it may be easy to explain such occurrences on exceptional circumstances, be they freaks of nature or the will of God, there is no escaping the fact that the present predicament is the result of our doing, exacerbated by the process of globalisation. Our increased use of energy in conjunction with moves by governments to "privatise" or "liberalise" everything that once had belonged to a community or society as a whole has led to a dilapidation of public infrastructures. In terms of the the energy sector, governments have given over a key element public infrastructure over to giant corporations which, in turn, have failed to invest in alternative energy sources and to upgrade the systems.
Hence, in many ways the problems inherent in electricity grids are the same as those which afflict computer networks. While much ado has been made of the evil nature of hackers, worms, and viruses, the Internet has suffered greatly from non "terror" related problems. The Internet has crawled to a halt on a number of occasions due to technical failure and simple network overload, as in the case of the Mars probe when everyone rushed on-line to see what was happening.
Not only this, but as with electricity and our insatiable thirst for energy, the mere dynamics of technological expansion is a major contributor to the problem. Satellites play an increasingly crucial role in transmitting information around the planet, with space becoming an essential part of telecommunication infrastructure. Over the last few years, a number of problems have started to emerge whose cause is loosely termed "space debris". Much of this man-made: the remnants of rockets, satellites, and space stations. Some of the problems, however, are also of natural origin: meteors and solar radiation, for instance. In fact, ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA scientists have warned that the earth is about to face a decade long galactic dust storm (cf. www.cordis.lu; record control number 20688). They estimate that the amount of galactic dust entering the solar system is three times higher than during the 1990s. It's believed that the sun could be responsible for the increase, which threatens to play havoc with our space-borne machinery.
Already accidents have started to occur. In May 1988, a satellite operated by PanAmSat spun out of control because of "sky static". Pager traffic was wiped out, credit card transactions halted, and media stations (TV and radio) were knocked off the air. In 1997 AT&T's Telstar 401 satellite was destroyed, knocking out thousands of television sets and telephones.
In light of the impressive catalog of minor disasters which have thus far occurred, some (like Antony Milne in his book "Sky Static: The Space Debris Crisis") conclude that it's inevitable that eventually something catastrophic will occur. But we don't have to look so high in the sky for such catastrophes: a more down to earth example, like the ice storm which hit eastern Canada in 1999, did an impressive job in crippling all aspects of social life: both on-line and off.
While accidents do happen, it's another story altogether when the scale of these accidents are exacerbated by negligence and even ignorance, coupled with an interdependence which turns a local problem into a regional, national, or even an international one. When all this is combined with the fact that western society has prematurely put most of its vital functions in terms of commerce, bureaucracy, and even access to basic information on weak and dilapidated energy and communications network infrastructures, it's a recipe for disaster.