Toronto skyline during the 2003 Northeast blackout

Study warns of future widespread blackouts

Growing demand for electricity together with aging infrastructure will likely cause widespread blackouts and energy insecurity in coming decades, a new study has revealed.

Extrapolating data from the past, researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, and the University of Auckland, New Zealand, have concluded the energy demand in the western world is likely to rise more than ten times in the coming decades. Together with the depletion of fossil fuels and the unstable nature of renewable resources, the researchers believe the future power-hungry world is most likely condemned to some real energy trouble.

“It is estimated that energy demand for air conditioning in 2100 will be 40 times greater than it was in 2000. Alongside this, there is also an ever-increasing market for electric vehicles,” said Hugh Byrd, Professor of Architecture at the University of Lincoln.

“Western societies therefore face a significant social problem. They are becoming ever more dependent upon electrical power yet supply will struggle to meet demand, especially if you consider the current rate of population growth and the continuing sophistication and prevalence of electrical appliances in our homes, work places and social environments,” he said.

For example, between 1940 and 2001, the electricity consumption of an average American household grew by 1,300 per cent. At that point in time, however, the era of electrical vehicles had not yet commenced and personal and computing technology was only on its way to becoming omnipresent. As a result of those technologies taking off, the researchers fear, widespread long-lasting blackouts could become a regular occurrence in the future, wreaking havoc in the energy-dependent society

“Electricity fuels our existence. It powers water purification, waste, food, transportation and communication systems,” said Prof Byrd. “Modern social life is impossible to imagine without it, and whereas cities of the past relied on man-power, today we are almost completely reliant on a series of interlocking technical systems.”

Apart from the growing demand, the aging infrastructure is most likely going to contribute to the future energy instability.

“Infrastructural investment across Europe and the USA has been poor, and our power generation systems are more fragile than most people think,” said Professor Steve Matthewman, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland.

“The vulnerability of our electricity systems is highlighted by one particular blackout which took place in Italy in 2003, when the whole nation was left without power because of two fallen trees.”  

Electrical power has been defined as a ‘critical infrastructure’ by the International Risk Governance Council as most of the systems that keep modern civilisation working rely on it.

“Research shows that in America power outages cause annual losses of up to $180bn, but economic cost is not the only concern. We should also consider issues of food safety, increased crime rates, transport problems and the environmental cost of diesel generators; which are all matters that come to the fore during a blackout,” said Prof Bird.

“Our research aims to show how important it is to consider these issues, as our increasing demands continue to place additional strains on already struggling systems of generation.”

The study was published in the latest issue of Social Space Scientific Journal.

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