Save the Internet, Part 3: India Offline

In my last post, I talked about the harm caused by generating electricity to feed the internet (and all our other electrical needs). Today I’m going to look at what happens when we use so much energy that our utilities no longer have the capacity to meet the demand. Think darkness. And empty wallets.

A lack of energy efficiency can mean that the existing electrical grid does not have the capacity to deliver enough energy to everyone who wants it. Demand outweighs supply.

The short term result is a blackout. We’ve all had those before, and usually they are really not that bad. The lights go out for a couple minutes, your YouTube video goes dark before you’ve seen the end of that ridiculous music video, no big deal.

You may have heard last week that India experienced the mother of all blackouts. The northern electricity grid failed to deal with exceptionally high demand, some of which was due to a spike in air conditioning use during a heat wave. 670 million people were left without power for 2 days. That is 10% of the population… of planet Earth.

Without getting into the 300 million people who never have electricity in India due to an inadequate grid, let’s just say that this power outage was a disaster. It was a dramatic example of the kind of havoc a blackout can cause, and a solid demonstration of how dependent we have become on reliable, continuous electricity.

Blackouts are a symptom of the utility’s capacity problem; or on the other hand our electrical-greed problem. In some cases, the utility may choose to implement rolling blackouts in order to temporarily and equitably distribute the inconvenience. This technique was used extensively in 2000 and 2001 during California’s power crisis, but I would bet that no one affected found it to be particularly enjoyable.

In other cases, a utility may have an adequate demand management strategy in place to shed load so no blackouts are necessary. This usually involves the utility having pre-existing agreements with major electrical consumers like industrial or large commercial facilities. When the grid is experiencing a demand spike, the utility has the ability to shut off power to a non-essential part of one of these facilities, freeing up energy to be used by someone else.

High demand charges are also common. For example, a utility in California identifies that from 4pm until 8pm on weekdays in June, July and August, there is a major increase in demand on the grid (likely due to everyone coming home from work and turning on their air conditioning systems at the same time). The utility will charge much more for energy used during this specific time period. This acts as an incentive to use less energy during that period, ideally spreading out the demand more evenly.

Ultimately, these efforts will not be enough over the long term if electricity consumption continues to rise. The utility will experience more and more demand spikes and eventually be unable to provide reliable power with its existing infrastructure. Without customers becoming more energy efficient, the only solution is to build new power plants.

This is most often met with a great deal of public outcry- by the same public who does not turn off the lights when they leave a room, or who leave their air conditioning blasting at home while they are out at work. The same public that expects, even demands, that they can get their daily dose of Twitter and have instant access to their favorite blogs at all times.

New fossil fuel power plants mean an increase in all the problems covered in the last post. Even new renewable energy generation can be a problem. New hydro dams usually involve major disruption to the flow of rivers, often disrupting the life cycle of migrating fish species like salmon. Wind farms, solar panels and wave booms take their hits for spoiling the view or disrupting the surf.

There are complaints about every type of electricity generation. The only solution is to improve our energy efficiency so that we can meet our needs with the current supply.

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