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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Utility Issue Scenarios

It always is helpful to know what you are planning for - and this is particularly an issue when speaking of creating systems to live without fossil fuels. What are you likely to run into? How long could the power be off? Is it really an issue at all?

Now I’m on record as saying the most likely utility scenario is this - you can’t afford to pay your bills, and they shut you off. This happens all the time to poor people, and the number of utility shut-offs is dramatically up. So that’s scenario number 1 - that your gas or phone or electric bill rises up to the point that you can no longer pay it, and eventually, you have to give up that service.

But what about other possibilities. Here’s my take in order of likelihood:

1. Regular blackout/brownouts during hot weather. With increased heat waves, we’re likely to see more and more strained power plants, and poweroutages during high summer. Besides the heavy drains on resources during hot weather, this may happen because of drought - both coal and nuclear plants require copious water for cooling, and in very dry periods, can shut down. One study suggested the Southwest may eventually struggle to produce sufficient electric simply because there won’t be enough water to keep the plants going.

2. More and more extended power outages. Hmmm…this year we had Houston with a Hurricane, Kentucky with an ice storm, large chunks of the Northeast with same, parts of the Midwest with flooding….yeah.

The odds are good that sooner or later, due to some major issue, you’ll find yourself going a couple of weeks without power - maybe longer. It took 3 weeks to get everyone back in Houston, and more in Kentucky. And if you live in ice or hurricane or blizzard or wind or flood or fire prone areas, you can expect it to happen more often.

3. Intermittency - remember Enron and the rolling blackouts? There are a lot of grid and power consumption issues with our electrical system. Some of them may be managed in the coming years with more cyclical intermittency - ie, the power is out a couple of hours every night or every weekend.

4. Major infrastructure failure. Remember the 2004 blackout in the northeast? This would be grid infrastructure failure. So would the gas pressure falling at the end of gas lines, which was threatened several winters ago in the US. While I don’t think massive grid failure is super likely, I do think that we may see plenty of localized - or even not so localized interruptions.

6. Stuff breaks, never gets fixed, particularly in the outer regions. There may come a point at which it simply isn’t economically feasible to really maintain infrastructure for areas outside large population centers. We may see that repair trucks stop coming out, or take a long, long time to do so.

7. Catastrophic constraint in supply. We’ve already seen this with the European gas situation this winter, where geopolitical situations constrained European consumers of natural gas and left them without heat. Canada is in the situation of being obligated to sell their natural gas to the US disproportionately - they may renegotiate if they find themselves with insufficient gas for their own heating needs. We certainly could see geopolitical constraints on access to heating oil.

I think none of these situations is tremendously unlikely, and to me, this means that none of us should be completely complacent that what we hope we’ll get from our utility companies will always keep coming as we’d like it. Everyone needs a backup plan for life without them.


Original: http://sharonastyk.com/2009/03/10/utility-issue-scenarios/