There's nothing like a disruption in the power supply to remind us how dependent on electricity we have become. From India's unprecedented blackout of 2012 to a recent spate of U.S. power outages caused by blizzards and hurricanes, these events force us to remember how many of our daily activities normally rely on electricity.
And that dependence is making us increasingly vulnerable, as sociologist Steve Matthewman and architect Hugh Byrd warned in a 2013 research paper.
A future of disruption?
Their paper — titled "Blackouts: A Sociology of Electrical Power Failure," and published in the Social Space Scientific Journal — suggests we shouldn't take uninterrupted supply for granted.
"Infrastructural investment across Europe and the U.S. has been poor, and our power generation systems are more fragile than most people think," Matthewman told the Guardian in 2014. "The vulnerability of our electricity systems is highlighted by one particular blackout which took place in Italy in 2003, when the whole nation was left without power because of two fallen trees. This reality is particularly alarming when you consider the world's increasing dependency on electricity."
The fragility of the U.S. electrical grid will come as no surprise to folks who experienced the 2014 Northeast blackouts, for example, or to the tens of millions who have endured long-term power outages wrought by hurricanes in recent years. How we choose to respond, however, will determine what happens next.
A confluence of technologies
While critics of renewable energy warn of intermittent supply, there's been a great deal of work to ensure that renewables can keep the lights on when the sun doesn't shine. From distributed and utility-scale battery storage to smart homes, microgrids and demand response technology, there are technologies on the horizon that could at least help reduce our vulnerability to blackouts, if not craft a more resilient, sophisticated energy system than what we have now.
We also need to get serious about using a lot less energy. But progress is already underway. In a 2014 op-ed for LiveScience, Seth Shulman of the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that efficiency and conservation measures over the last decade are a little-discussed success story:
Think for a moment about how many more electronic devices we all use these days even for tasks — from brushing our teeth to reading books and magazines — that we used to do without electricity. And yet, nonetheless, we're still seeing steady declines in residential electricity consumption, down now to the 2001 level of an average of 10,819 kilowatt-hours per household. It's a remarkable and indisputable achievement that is saving you money and lowering the nation's carbon emissions. The story is, to a large extent, a direct result of government energy-efficiency standards.
A commitment to efficiency
A house with passive daylighting in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo: Jeremy Levine/Flickr)
From laptop computers using a fraction of the power that a desktop used to, to massive improvements in refrigerator efficiency, Shulman makes the case that government intervention has been central to such progress. Imagine what could be achieved if we redoubled such efforts, and if economies like China or India — countries that have much to gain from avoiding a future of blackouts — put their own efforts into curbing demand.
That said, there are huge mountains to climb. Curbing electricity consumption in the U.S., where refrigerators and HVAC systems were already widespread, was relatively simple. As consumers in emerging economies gain economic clout, it seems reasonable to assume they'll be acquiring the trappings of a modern lifestyle, and the growing energy consumption that goes along with it.
Tackle the problem from all angles
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this debate is that we'd be wise to not put all our eggs in one basket. The pressing urgency of climate change means we have no choice but to massively ramp up the production of clean energy. Alongside that effort, investing in sophisticated technology for both better energy storage and distribution would seem like a no-brainer. And conservation and efficiency should be priorities for developed and emerging economies alike.
Complex technology can only take us so far. An LED bulb is as useful as an incandescent in a blackout. An efficient new HVAC is as effective as a cheap electric space heater if the power is not on. Disruption to our energy supply is a useful reminder that, alongside efficiency, designers need to think about resilience, as Lloyd Alter noted at TreeHugger in 2014:
At the time of this writing, hundreds of thousands of people are without power right now in Pennsylvania. The whole Northeast has been going through cold like we haven't felt for years. If anyone ever needed a lesson in why we should stop building glass towers and why we should be building to far higher standards of insulation, this has been it. The people who are living in Passive Houses are sitting pretty while everyone might freeze in the dark.
Smart homes are great. But deploy 'dumb' solutions first.
From caulking baseboards in a historic home to building new buildings that require almost no heating, strategies for increasing resilience can be applied anywhere. Used alongside cutting-edge solutions like LED lighting and solar PV, they can increase efficiency and reliability when the grid is operating, and guard against disaster if and when it does go down.
What our future energy supply will look like seems decidedly uncertain. But what we need to do to shape it seems utterly clear.
So let's get started before the lights go out.