Sunday, June 03, 2012

What happens during an extended power outage?

Prof. Dr. M. Popp (Energie Fakten)
Translated from German

Unlike in many parts of the world, there are almost no more blackouts in Germany. That's a good thing, because our dependence on electrical energy has become so extensive that normal life without electricity is almost unthinkable. We take continuous supply of electricity for granted.

Due to the strong expansion of renewable energies such as solar and wind, our electricity grids are increasingly strained by rapid and large power increases and decreases. In the past, utilities hardly had to intervene in network operation (e.g. only twice during 2003). Last year, however, a total of 990 interventions took place in 306 days. The exception has become a more than daily recurrence.

According to network operators, critical situations have occurred occasionally. For example in the beginning of February, during a very cold day, the availability of solar and wind energy highly fluctuated. It is difficult to predict whether a network failure can be limited to particular regions, or as 2 years ago in Italy, will spread to the whole country, and how long it will take until the supply is restored. Multi-day power cuts are unlikely to occur, but they can happen as a result of terrorist activities or of extreme weather events. Their likelihood - while still low - is increasing. The consequences are so serious that a study by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag recommended last year to take precautions against extended blackouts, despite their low probability.

The study describes impressively, what would happen during a blackout lasting several days:

1. Information and communication

break down almost completely. First, fixed-line telephony falls out and with it most of the internet and email connections. Mobile phones, depending on their charge state, could still operate a couple of days, but quickly become equally useless, because the base stations after a short time are overloaded. TV no longer works - only battery-powered radios or emergency issues of newspapers can be used to spread information.

2. Traffic

With a power outage, the rail network immediately breaks down. Many travelers need to be rescued from underground trains or from trains stranded between two stations. In the cities, the traffic control system stops functioning, resulting in multiple accidents. The streets are increasingly clogged with accident vehicles or abandoned cars due to fuel shortage. Police and emergency services are severely hampered, as far as they themselves still have means of communication and fuel. Only on highways, a power failure will be hardly noticeable, at least as long as the tank is full. Airports also have a strong backup power supply that allows them to handle limited takeoffs and landings in process; however, the entry and exit of passengers to/from the airport quickly becomes problematic. Ship traffic is hardly affected at first, until loading and unloading at the docks is required.

3. Water and Wastewater

Production, processing and distribution of water are all dependent on pumps; they quickly become severely limited. In many regions, no more water for drinking, cooking and sanitation is available. With toilets clogged, the risk of spreading diseases is increasing. At the same time increases the risk of fire, because, for example in industrial plants, cooling circuits shut down, while at home, people attempt to cook without electricity. Firefighters are also strongly affected. The sanitation is at risk because the amount of wastewater is reduced and can lead to blockages in channels and flooding of contaminated water. Treatment plants can usually operate thanks to emergency supply, but where it is absent or when it fails, wastewater must be discharged directly into rivers.

4. Food

The complex supply chain, from raw material to finished products will be interrupted. The minimum service to the population becomes the first priority for the authorities. The successful management of this problem depends not only on the survival of many people but also on the maintenance of public order. Major problems arise in the industrial farms - pigs and poultry often do not survive the first few hours of a blackout.

5. Health service

The decentralized and labour-intensive health care system can briefly withstand the consequences of a power outage. Hospitals maintain only a limited operation, dialysis centers, retirement and nursing homes must be evacuated. Doctors' offices and pharmacies must close. Drugs are rapidly running out. Critical shortages in insulin, blood products and dialysis fluids develop. Emergency services can only be used for limited transport and evacuation operations, because they are overwhelmed by diverse requirements while being affected by fuel shortages and loss of communications.

6. Financial Services

The much-criticized financial system proves to be quite robust in some areas when faced with a blackout, for example for the data and payment exchanges between the banks and stock exchanges. Less robust are the lines of communication with their customers, as telephone and internet are down. Branch offices remain closed and ATMs do not work anymore, so the population will soon have no more cash at its disposal.

7. Behavior of the population

All the above adds up to increasing uncertainty in the population which may have different effects, either increased willingness for mutual assistance, or a decline in the norms of social conduct (as elegantly expressed in the study, but probably referring to looting and other excesses).

8. Financial and social costs

The economic consequences of a power outage in Germany have been calculated in the study. Because of the high power intensity of the German economy, every kWh that is not delivered costs between 8-16 €. In a country-wide power failure during the winter, the hourly economic loss varies between 0.6 to 1.3 billion euro. Per day, it becomes 20 to 30 billion €.

No information can be found in the study on the number of victims. One can assume, however, that there will be numerous deaths, due to the combined effects of increased accidents, inadequate rescue operations, loss of life-support systems, fires and public unrest .


The study makes an effort to objectivity, but gives a frightening picture that makes us aware how much we need a secure power supply in our modern life. Electrical energy is not a luxury but an basic necessity. We should handle our electricity supply system responsibly and with adequate precaution. Anyone who has read the study, will never again speak lightly of a blackout.


What Happens During a Blackout? - Consequences of a Prolonged and Wide-ranging Power Outage

Thursday, May 24, 2012

List of energy blogs

Using the service from, we've started to assemble a list of energy blogs. Vote, comment or add your own favourite blogs.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Future Electric Society

Electricity is what 4 recent, integrated visions have in common about the future of energy.In this presentation, we introduce these visions, their common elements and their far-reaching implications for the future of energy. Join the debate here or on LinkedIn.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How much energy will we need?

According to David MacKay's book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, the UK will need 70 kWh/pp/day to cover final energy needs for electricity, transport and heat. This is equivalent to 100 GJ/pp/yr of final energy.

In his book Energy at the Crossroads, Vaclav Smil argues that we can get by with 50-70 GJ/pp/yr - 70 GJ was roughly the energy consumption of Japan / France in the seventies.

The above graph comes from the recent Energy Report and gives an overview of estimates for primary and final energy needs towards the middle of this century.

The good news is that - in a 100% renewable system - the distinction between primary and final energy fades, and that we could suffice with 300-500 Exajoules of annual energy consumption. In a world of 9 billion people, this means 33 - 55 GJ/pp/yr, after we electrify personal transport and massively insulate buildings.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Four integrated energy visions

Solar Array récupéré de http://en.wikipedia.or...Image via WikipediaVision #1: Sustainable energy without the hot air
In his book, David Mackay works out the numbers for the UK. He uses a common unit (kWh/pp/day) and uses this to calculate daily energy needs for electricity, heating and transport, concluding that UK could be run on 70 kWh per person and per day. Then he reviews which sources could contribute to this demand, and develops 5 plans for powering Britain.

Vision #2: Searching for a miracle
This report by Richard Heinberg is all about the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of various energy sources. It reviews 18 energy sources, and comes to a worrying conclusion. EROEI is decreasing rapidly.

Both experts emphasisize the need for energy conservation and on the advantages of electricity as an energy carrier. They see only very limited potential for bioenergy. Both see major potential for wind power, photovoltaics and concentrated solar power.

Vision #3: Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power
In this paper, Mark Jacobson estimates that a 100% renewable system will require 3,800,000 5 MW wind turbines, 49,000 300 MW concentrated solar plants, 40,000 300 MW solar PV power plants, 1.7 billion 3 kW rooftop PV systems, 5350 100 MW geothermal power plants, 270 new 1300 MW hydroelectric power plants, 720,000 0.75 MW wave devices, and 490,000 1 MW tidal turbines. It is one of the first global visions for 100% renewables, relying primarily on electricity.

Vision #4: The Energy Report
This report is a joint project between WWF and Ecofys also proposes a global, 100% renewables vision. Like the Jacobson report, it foresees a major role for electricity - a common characteristic for the 4 visions, but it also expects major contributions from bioenergy, e.g. for marine transport, aviation and industrial heating processes.

For these last 2 visions, Leonardo ENERGY is organising webinars on June 14 and June 16 where the respective authors will present their findings.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Solar Photovoltaics at a total cost of 1 $/Watt can change everything

GAINESVILLE, FL - APRIL 15:  Tom Doughty (L) a...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeGary Hunt has a post yesterday on Energy Secretary's Steven Chu's Sunshot initiative targeting 1 $/Watt as total cost for going solar. For sunny climates, where each kW can produce as much as 1,500 kWh of electricity, worth a couple of 100 dollars at current retail prices, an investment of a 1000 $/kW will give a much better return than the financial markets.

Unfortunately, the initiative targets bulk solar power plants of 100s of MW. For small-scale residential systems, the 1 $/W target is more distant, and may never be achieved for typical systems of 3-5 kW which carry too much planning, design and installation overhead.

For utilities and project developers with deep time horizons, this cost target enables bulk electricity generation in the range of 5 to 10 c/kWh. If the market massively invests in this technology, solar PV may even help to reduce electricity prices.

Comparing this with current retail prices of electricity, a rate of 5-10 c/kWh give some margin to invest in smart grids for balancing, solving any problems that may occur during the day. However, with massive investment in solar photovoltaics, and despite equally massive deployment of demand management, smart grids and strongly integrated regional transmission systems, substantial long-term storage will be needed. According to The Energy Report, this can be provided by a combination of pumped hydro, compressed air storage and hydrogen.
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International Zero-Energy Housing

Since buildings are major energy users, zero-energy building concepts are one of the major potential contributors to a sustainable energy system. This presentation from innovolve presents an International Zero-Energy Housing Initiative, demonstrating that the concept works for a wide variety of dwelling types in various climates. After the examples, the presentation introduces some of the technologies used, and what needs to be done to have a massive zero-energy housing movement.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Which energy sources do you expect to contribute substantially to our future energy mix?

In his report Searching for a Miracle, Richard Heinberg reviews 18 energy sources as candidates for our future energy mix. Taking a global perspective, and time horizon 2050, which of these sources can and should substantially (more than 5%) contribute to our energy mix?