Among the industrial systems being strained to and beyond their limits by the tensions between growing demand and limited supplies is the electrical network of every industrialized country. Brazil is just the latest to experience the consequences of breaking circuit breakers.
Tuesday night, cascading failures of 15 major transmission lines plunged two-thirds of Brazil and all of Paraguay into darkness. 60 million people were without power for four hours. There were fears of foul play, after the CBS news program "60 Minutes" reported Sunday that an earlier blackout in Brazil had been the work of computer hackers. But government officials insisted the problem was lightning that struck a transmission line, causing a series of circuit breakers to trip to protect the system. Any sudden change in a grid causes electricity, which travels at the speed of light and seeks the path of least resistance, to surge around the system, overloading transmission lines and causing changes in voltage and frequency that can destroy electric generators and motors. Circuit breakers impose a blackout to save the equipment.
The failure bore some similarities to the 2003 blackout in the northeastern United States that left 50 million people without power for as long as a day. The initial problem in that case was an overloaded -- and thus overheated -- transmission line that sagged into a tree and shorted out. Various management problems, from faulty software to incompetent humans, contributed to a tsunami of electricity that gathered in Michigan and Ohio, then slammed into New York State and took its system down. A similar event in South Florida in 2008 affected a million homes and businesses.
Similar problems have been plaguing Venezuela, which like Brazil is rich in energy sources, from hydro-electric dams to enormous oil reserves. In the past two years there have been six national blackouts, and power is now regularly cut off in rural areas and smaller cities for several hours a day. In the face of rising discontent (and rising economic penalties exacted by lack of electricity) the government of Hugo Chavez is floundering around with bans on importing air conditioners and promises of a nuclear power program sometime in the future.
The electricity crisis in South Africa reached critical mass last year, when demand exceeded supply and resulted in brownouts and blackouts across the country. At its worst the crisis shut down the country's gold and diamond mines, whose workers' survival depends on an uninterrupted supply of electricity for, among other things, ventilating miles-deep shafts. The global recession tamped down the problem because of reduced industrial activity, but as the general economy recovers the crisis is expected to reappear.
An outage in Australia in July affected 150,000 people in five states. Earlier the major city of Sydney was crippled three times in a month by sudden blackouts.
The common denominator in almost all these events is the primitive, vulnerable and aged equipment used to transmit electricity over long distances -- the so-called grid. Do not call it technology, it consists of what one critic called "strings on sticks," and most of it was put in place 50 years ago. The countries that have experienced serious blackouts have not invested in the grid, have not replaced its aged components, have not improved its capacities, for half a century. And that includes the United States, where the next huge blackout is one hiccup away.
By the way, when utility companies talk about building a "smart" grid (a term that gives the back of its hand smartly to the existing grid) they often aren't talking about the grid at all, but the distribution system that carries power to individual houses and businesses. No one has a solution for the vulnerability and the limitations of long-distance transmission through strings on sticks.
It's ironic that when the grid is down for a few hours, people begin to supply their own power, albeit inefficiently and expensively, with stopgap generators. But as soon as an industrial-sized band-aid is applied and the lights come back on, everyone is happy to consign their fates once again to an enormous, creaky machine that is on the verge of breaking down irreparably.
[For a more complete discussion of the blackout of 2003 and the implications of the failing grid, see my book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living.]