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Lancaster Flood
Image: Dave Bleasdale

What happens when the grid goes down?

The two threats to energy most often documented on this site are the lack of new generating capacity and the decline in affordable fossil fuels.  To these, Laurie Winkless at Forbes adds a third problem that is likely to get worse as time goes by:

“Storm Desmond hit northwest England in early December 2015. Following a month of exceptionally heavy rainfall that had left soil waterlogged, Desmond’s arrival brought with it an unprecedented level of flooding across Cumbria and North Lancashire. At the peak of the flood, 1,742 cubic meters of water (equivalent to 460,000 US gallons, or two-thirds of the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool) flowed down the River Lune every second. Sitting behind a new flood barrier along the banks of the river, was the city of Lancaster’s main electricity substation, which connected 61,000 properties to the National Grid.”

Winkless goes on to document a classic process of “cascading collapse” of the kind detailed in The Consciousness of Sheep, in which the loss of one critical infrastructure (electricity) has a knock on impact on neighbouring infrastructure:

“This meant much more than just sitting in their houses in darkness. For a start, most mobile phone networks collapsed… A few local radio stations managed to broadcast, but only those with a wind-up or battery-powered radio could pick up the signal… in short, almost all of the communication services we use every day were lost… most schools shut down too – computers, lighting, heating, and security systems were all offline. Even on non-flooded roads, traffic lights didn’t work, nor did the much of the street lighting. Supermarkets could only accept cash payments, as card terminals (which rely on the internet) were out of service, but thankfully the hospital’s emergency generator functioned throughout the blackout. Some students at Lancaster University were evacuated, and the city’s main train station was closed from dusk till dawn (because of the lack of platform lighting). The local bus station was flooded but some services remained operating regardless. Lancaster’s water supply was more problematic however, especially for those living in multi-story buildings who rely on electric pumps to move their water and waste around.”

As Winkless notes, this was a relatively brief (30 hours) outage covering a very small population (60,000).  It is worth contrasting this to the 2003 power outage across the northeast USA and Canada, where more than 55 million people were affected.  Similar cascading failures also resulted from the UK fuel protests in September 2000, after petrol rose above the iconic £1.00 per litre.

The truth is that our modern, electrified economy becomes increasingly vulnerable as its complexity increases.  Any sudden drop in energy throughput – either from electricity outages or petroleum shortages – will very quickly spread across critical systems – water and sewage, banking, food supplies, communications, emergency healthcare, etc.  The 2015 flood event demonstrated that climate change is becoming another key risk factor that can no longer be ignored.

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