India’s blackout left millions without power: Could America be next?

In the wake of India’s recent 50 percent electrical outage with more than 600 million residents losing power, more Americans should start thinking about our electrical grid.

Fifty percent of India was plunged into darkness this week without electricity and all things that electricity brings to a modern nation: from the humble hair-dryer to critical defibrillators and breathing machines in hospitals, computers and navigation systems for trains and planes and water systems, not to mention the ubiquitous cell phone.

Indeed, far from worrying about another 9/11 type attack– as awful and traumatizing to the nation as it was– I’m more worried about would happen if the United States’ electrical grid collapsed.  Its failure could come from cyber- terrorism, but equally from solar flares, geomagnetic forces, earthquakes and other natural disasters as well as simple lack of maintenance and investment.

Paul Stockton, assistant secretary for Homeland Defense and America’s Security Affairs at the Department of Defense, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum in June that a breakdown in the U.S. electric grid would produce “long term, large scale outage.”

Let that sink in: “Long term, large scale.”

The northeast blackout of August 2003 affected 10 million people in Canada and 45 million in the United States.  It  lasted  but a single day, but the disruption lasted longer with boiled water alerts and a rise in heat related deaths.

Defense, both at home and abroad, Stockton said depended on an infrastructure that is under girded by our electric grid. Why should our adversaries attack us head on, militarily and directly when they can undermine us internally?

But let us step away from the terrorist boogey man for a moment.

Energy Department spokeswoman Keri Fulton said the United States electrical system is segmented into three parts with safeguards that prevent an outage in a system tripping a blackout in another system. It’s unlikely, Fulton insists.

Unless, of course, mother nature plays a role in it.

Imagine an earthquake in the heart of the nation that could set church bells to ringing in Boston. The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 did just that and there is a 7 to 10 percent chance that they could again within the next 50 years.

Rippling out from central Missouri, the earthquakes were the most powerful to ever hit the nation. Sidewalks cracked in Washington, D.C., chimneys toppled  in Maine and church bells clanged in Boston.

If we had such a massive earthquake today, Stockton said that it “would cause a power outage for weeks to months across a multi-state area, rolling blackouts in the East Coast…”

Imagine the impact on our urbanized nation of an earthquake like that today: the blackouts, the fires from shattered high rises, and the tragic deaths.

Even without such a catastrophe, we’re already experiencing more and more electrical outages.

In the January 2011 issue of Spectrum magazine, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, author S. Massoud Amin  noted that electrical outages have steadily increased since 1995 while investment in research and development for the electric power sector has plummeted.

“The U.S.electrical grid has been plagued by ever more and ever worse blackouts over the past 15 years…each five year period worse than the preceding one,” he wrote. “R&D spending for the electric power sector dropped 74 percent, from a high in 1993 of US $741 million to $193 million in 2000.

“In other words, for the past 15 years, utilities have harvested more than they have planted,” he continued. “The result is an increasingly stressed grid. Indeed, grid operators should be praised for keeping the lights on, while managing a system with diminished shock absorbers.”

At the beginning of the millennium, I taught a journalism class in our nation’s capital and once observed that the United States could look like a developing nation in a very short time.  My students, twenty-somethings, pooh-poohed this.

But my experience in Africa, Latin and Central America where the well-off are cosseted from the poor by high walls topped with broken glass, gated communities with armed security and their own electric generators continues to make me wary.

For too long, we’ve all taken for granted our legacy from the Greatest Generation:  highways, bridges, dams, water and wastewater utilities and that mighty electrical grid that lights us coast to coast.

 (Feature photo from PBS’ America Revealed)

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