In 2016 I read the book “Lights Out” written by Ted Koppel. The book outlined how exposed our power grid was to catastrophic failure.
It scared the shit out of me.
The situation described in the book was so dire and so unexpected I could hardly believe it was true.
Ted Koppel, the long-time host of ABC’s late night news program, Nightline, leveraged his reputation to access and interview key officials in the government and the private sector. The book focused on the risk of cyberattack, but along the way Koppel describes the general fragility of the system including single points of failure, our inability to manufacture key components domestically, and our general reliance on antiquated systems.
Koppel opened my eyes to the fragility of the electrical grid and the catastrophic consequences its broad failure would cause. So, I always keep an eye out for news related to our electrical infrastructure.
Lately, there’s been a lot.
Blackouts No Longer Rare
Nobody is surprised when a developing nation suffers blackouts. But, we’re the United States. We’re rich. We’re advanced. And yet, blackouts seem to be happening all over the country now. From February’s grid failure in Texas to PG&E’s planned blackouts in California and unplanned rolling blackouts in Washington and New York.
What’s changed? Why is the grid failing so frequently?
Killing in the Name of Climate Crisis
Blackouts happen when energy demand exceeds supply. But, why is supply and demand so out of balance? And how do we fix it?
Short answer: The problem is supply.
You’ve heard this story before… The folks making decisions on our behalf have diverted funds to unproductive and unreliable “clean” energy sources like solar and wind.
That’s true, but it’s not the important part of the story.
While demanding action! on carbon emissions to avert a climate catastrophe, our ‘leaders’ forced through dramatic reductions in existing energy capacity including scrapping zero-emission power plants which, for decades, produced clean and reliable energy for millions of homes.
Easy Answers and Blame Shifting
“Joe Biden has joined scientists in blaming the climate crisis for a record-shattering heatwave in the western US and Canada that has been linked to dozens of deaths, buckled roads, blackouts and wildfires.”, reports The Guardian.
We’re told that blackouts, wild fires, and extreme temperatures are not just symptoms, but actual evidence of humans damaging the environment with climate change.
The only way to fix the problem, apparently, is to fundamentally change the way humans interact with the environment. Don’t eat meat. Have fewer children. Get an electric car, or better yet, a bicycle. Oh, and turn the air conditioning off you selfish jerk! You’re killing the planet!
One tactic being adopted across the country are alerts like those sent to New Yorkers this week:
This tactic is interesting for a couple of reasons.
First, when the grid is pushed to its limit, telling people to reduce consumption might actually help keep the lights on and avoid a harder to recover from blackout.
More importantly, however, energy consumers are being conditioned to accept the blame for the catastrophic consequences of leadership failure.
Soon, during a period of rolling blackouts, your mayor/governor/president will look into the camera and scold you for putting the lives of some marginalized group at risk with your selfish and “unnecessary use of air conditioning”.
Watch for it. It’ll happen.
Three months ago and just one year after ‘Unit 2’ was closed, ‘Unit 3’, the last of three reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power plant was shut down for good.
The power plant is located 36 miles north of Midtown Manhattan and had been supplying NYC and Westchester County with energy since the first reactor - Unit 1 opened in 1962. In the 1970’s Unit 1 was decommissioned and upgraded with two - now scrapped reactors - Unit 2 and Unit 3.
I don’t know where to begin in trying to calculate the value these reactors provided to New Yorkers over the decades. But, looking at just one year we can get a sense of the scale:
In 2017, Indian Point’s Unit 2 & 3 reactors generated approximately 25%1 of all electricity consumed in New York City and Westchester County.
The power plant which just four years ago produced enough electricity for nearly 2,000,000 homes today produces nothing.
According to Wikipedia:
The original 40-year operating licenses for Units 2 and 3 expired in September 2013 and December 2015, respectively. Entergy had applied for license extensions and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was moving toward granting a twenty-year extension for each reactor. However, due to a number of factors including sustained low wholesale energy prices that reduced revenues, as well as pressure from local environmental groups and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, it was announced that the plant would shut down by 20212.
New York Cities power grid struggled to stay online during this week’s 3-day heat wave.
At a press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to “urgently, urgently” conserve power to help prevent more blackouts from occurring.
“Our electric system is dealing with real strain right now because of the severity of heat we are experiencing today, after four days in a row of intense heat,” de Blasio told reporters. “We have a real challenge on our hands. Immediately, immediately reduce the use of electricity in your home or business. This is very serious stuff, we need to assure our electric supply is protected and avoid any disruption.”
Hot, but not…
As NYC heat waves go, last week’s wouldn’t make it into the top 50. No temperature records (in NYC itself) were broken during the 3-day period.
Yes it was hot. And electricity demand was more than expected. According to the agency which runs the state’s grid, peak demand was 10,400MW or about 400MW above projections
For perspective, In 2013 a 7-day heatwave brought even higher temperatures to NYC and Westchester County and broke power usage records.3
The record from 2013 still stands and exceeds peak electricity demand from last week’s mini heat wave by nearly 3,000MW!
And yet, there was no crisis4:
“Due to the superb teamwork and coordination of New York’s transmission owning utilities, electric generating companies, demand response resources, energy services providers and government agencies, we have successfully met record-high electric demand with sustained reliable operation of the bulk electric system,” NYISO Chief Executive Stephen Whitley said in statement.
There is NO PLAN
What Koppel feared was an attack on the electrical grid by foreign terrorists or enemy nation state. The risk is real, but the grid is vulnerable to internal threats too - something Koppel benignly called “Regulation Gridlock”.
It’s better understood as institutional malfeasance. And it’s characterized by short-term thinking, political advantage, riding the government gravy train, and the passive cooperation of an uninformed and uninterested public.
At best, our leaders are trying to manage the consequences of decades of infrastructure neglect. At worst, they are purposefully engineering a radical decline in our standard of living in an effort to save the planet.
In either case, expect more blackouts.