Let's be honest: Without electricity, most of us wouldn't want to continue living. The power lines crisscrossing this great nation fill our homes with refrigerated meats, video game consoles, and air conditioning. The electric grid might very well be America's most valuable resource, so you'd expect it to be reasonably well-protected against terrorists, Internet sociopaths, and rodents.
Well, Cracked sat down with an executive for one of the companies working to protect and modernize our electric utilities, and he broke the difficult news that our power grid is about as carefully maintained as the floor of a taxi cab.
#5. Blackouts Are Caused by Ridiculous Random Bullshit
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There is an army trying to take down the world's power grid, right now, as we speak. They are dedicated, they are numerous, and they are willing to die. They're also very small and furry.
They are squirrels.
"I am become death, destroyer of convenience."
They run up power lines, chew anything that looks like it carries more than 1,000 volts of electricity, and die. Other times, they acrobatically stretch to grab both the power line and the transformer to try their hand at being a conduit for high-voltage electricity flow, and die. It's like there's a specific bloodline of squirrels whose only purpose in the universe is to knock out the power while you're right in the middle of a Supernatural marathon.
It isn't a small problem, either. Squirrels cause thousands of blackouts every year. A company in Nebraska found that squirrels cause more power outages per year than lightning. In Austin, where squirrels cause 300 power outages a year, Austin Energy is spending more than $100,000 annually to install technology to protect their grid from squirrels ("technology" here meaning "giant hunks of squirrel-deflecting metal"), which seems like an unnecessary amount of money until you consider that the squirrels caused an estimated $2 million worth of damage to their grid in a single year. There have been terrorist cells that were less effective in disrupting government infrastructure.
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It's an adorable jihad against your ability to use Spotify.
But they're hardly the only enemy, and they may not even be the most ridiculous. Back in 2003, there was a massive blackout that cut power to over 50 million people in Canada and the United States, and it wasn't caused by an ice storm or an atomic monster -- that sprawling power outage happened because a tree branch scraped up against a power line. That's it.
The reason the blackout spread so far was the alarm system put in place to alert technicians that shit was going down had crashed an hour earlier, and no one seemed to notice. Also, another technician had gone to lunch without switching on the equipment that monitors the status of the power grid. So, basically, millions of homes lost power because the people responsible for the grid couldn't be bothered to make sure the grid was actually working.
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"This thing is way bigger than the fucks I have to give about it."
A lot of people blamed the blackout on a "software bug," which in our industry is code for "sorry dudes, my bad." I'm not going to say I'm stating indisputable facts here, but I would not be surprised if the alarm systems that failed to predict the second largest blackout in human history hadn't "crashed" so much as "been turned off." Those alarms beep constantly, and that beeping gets pretty irritating, so it isn't uncommon for technicians to either ignore them or switch them off. If that seems hard to believe, click here to see an engineer asking a GE forum how she can configure the alarm to alert her only if the factory is about to explode:
"Popping the alarm screen for any alarm can be very annoying. Thus, I want to pop the screen only for critical alarms. ... What my client ask me to do is, Only for 'factory is going to blow up' alarms." (Emphasis ours.)
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Press "snooze" often enough, and this is what you get.
While it's good that she still wants to be informed when her place of business is about to detonate, I imagine a fine way to prevent that from happening would be to not ignore all of the warnings leading up to it.
At this point, you're probably wondering why the power grid is so vulnerable to stupid threats in the first place. Well ...
#4. Everything Is Ancient and Breaking
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Considering the speed with which our electronic gadgets have evolved over the last few decades, you might expect that our ability to deliver power to those gadgets has also advanced. But you would be fantastically incorrect. According to the Department of Energy, 70 percent of the transmission lines and power transformers in the country are at least 25 years old. Most of our grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of it is from the 1880s. Some of the electrical infrastructure in the United States is old enough to have been built by Civil War veterans:
Not pictured: anything made in the same century as your laptop.
The cocktail of high demand and crappy supply is starting to reach critical mass in the form of constant blackouts. The average number of non-disaster-related blackouts that affected at least 50,000 people more than doubled in the space of a decade, from 41 between 1991 and 1995, to 92 between 2001 and 2005. This means that the age of Vanilla Ice and the Walkman experienced 124 percent fewer power outages than the era that gave us the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station.
Now, in 2014, on any given day half a million Americans will be without power for at least two hours. This might seem like a minor annoyance, but there are hidden consequences to the average blackout. For example, the economic loss incurred from blackouts is between $70 billion and $120 billion dollars a year. That massive Northeast Blackout I mentioned earlier cost the U.S. and Canada $10 billion, even though it lasted only two days. Medium to large companies average a loss of $15,709 for ever 30 minutes they go without power, and the average blackout lasts 92 minutes. It's like a tiny burglar busting in every time the lights go out.
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This might as well be kindling, as far as that power outage is concerned.
But hey, fixing all this stuff would just mean either raising everyone's power bill or their taxes a little. Which means we're almost certainly going to roll the dice on those 130-year-old power lines and see how far they carry us. They've held on for this long, right?
"Wait," you might be saying, "what about all of this talk about green energy and a new, modern power grid? Won't all of this hassle be in the past?" Well ...
#3. Green Energy Is Completely Unpredictable
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The critical thing you need to understand about our electrical grid is that it falls apart unless the demand for energy matches the supply of energy. When there is too little energy being produced and too much demand for it, the grid breaks, the PlayStations turn off, and within minutes people are out on the streets eating cats.
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"You're where I store my emergency food!"
Things like solar panels and wind power are called "green" because they have the potential to save our environment from the current smog-farting generation of engines. But people who work in electric utilities call them "variable generation sources," because their energy output fluctuates so heavily that they're about as reliable as the lifeguard at that swimming pool behind the Walmart. If it's an especially cloudy or windless day, the electrical grid won't have enough power to supply the demanded energy, and the entire grid will shit its pants.
Or, uh, its transformers.
Remember when I said the supplied energy has to exactly match the demanded energy? That goes both ways -- solar and wind power also run the risk of producing too much energy. If it's too sunny and windy, because of some brilliant shining tornado or something, the electrical grid gets overwhelmed and can fry itself. We've seen it come close to happening when big storms go blasting through wind farms.
This seemingly contradictory idea of "too much energy" is the same reason why charging your electric car is free at night in Texas. Utilities generally have a surplus of electricity at night, and in order to keep the grid running, all that shit must go. The price of electricity can range anywhere from hideously expensive to so dirty cheap that utilities will actually pay you to use it. That is not a joke.
"We'll give you 30 bucks an orgasm to use that plug-in vibrator."
"Why don't we just store the extra energy at night, so that it's there when demand goes up?"