Hugh Byrd & Steve Matthewman have written an overview of what happens when electrical power goes out. Its not a pretty picture.

Blackouts, a total loss of power on the main lines to homes and business are serious problems. For those in the developed world blackouts have, so far been annoyances with mild to moderate personal and financial problems. As those who experience ice storms and hurricanes know, its when the blackout runs into days or weeks that the importance of a steady supply of power becomes clear.

The study paper, “Exergy and the City: The Technology and Sociology of Power Failure” has been published in the Journal of Urban Technology, and is not behind a paywall. Its a worthwhile read.

The authoring team discusses the critical nature of electrical infrastructure. In order to provide general patterns from specific cases, a large number of blackouts have been analyzed. Irrespective of cause, they display similar effects.

The effects include measurable economic losses and less easily quantified social costs. The paper discusses financial damage, food safety, crime, transport, and problems caused by diesel generators. This is more than just a record of past failures; blackouts are dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity.

While energy cannot be destroyed, exergy – the available energy within a system – can be. Exergy is concerned with energy within an “environment;” in this case a city. The bottom line is simple: no matter how “smart” a city may be, it becomes “dumb” when the power goes out.

“Grid supplies of electricity have democratized energy distribution in many countries. The immediate, cheap, and reliable supply of electricity has allowed economies to develop at an unprecedented rate. This supply is generally taken for granted in Western societies,” the authors point out.

“We have become dependent on air-conditioning, computers, lights, refrigerators, and freezers that are, in turn, dependent on an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Such is our dependency that our comfort, security, communication systems, transport, health, food supply, businesses, and social equity systems collapse when electricity supplies are interrupted. The continuing sophistication and prevalence of electrical appliances only serves to increase our dependence,” they wrote.

The article does a good job of pointing out the systems and dependencies we are using powered by the grid.

The article offers over the course of the text a listing of the services we’re using. A close read with a notepad to jot down where one is dependent on the grid is a worthwhile means of preparedness. Then one could invest and save on a case by case basis for some means of self defense.

As the authors note, long term blackouts are serious matters, and the more urban your circumstances the more dangerous it is for you.


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