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

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