Ed’s note: In the dark


Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, New York, London, Jakarta – these are the names of just some of the countries or cities affected in the last 5 months by power outages,  touching thousands, in some cases, millions of people and businesses.

In March, Venezuela’s power sector came to a grinding halt after an alleged cyber attack. The outage affected 70% of the country for just over 24 hours. The country was then hit by another outage – again purported to be the result of a cyber attack. It is said that between 21 and 79 people in hospitals around the country died as a result of the outage. Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro has blamed the US for the attacks.

In June, almost 44 million Argentinians were left in the dark in a power outage that spread to neighbouring Uruguay and into parts of Chile.

In July, New York City was similarly affected. This time, the outage affected some 72,000 people, impacting transport, theatregoers and commuters across the city. Mayor De Blasio blasted ComEd, saying that the breadth of the outage was ‘unacceptable’. Coincidentally, this outage occurred on the anniversary of an outage which left New York and 9 million customers in the dark in 1977. A week later, New York was once again impacted by an outage. Venezuela – too – was impacted by another countrywide outage.

And twice in August thus far, blackouts have affected 100 million people in Indonesia and almost 1 million in England and Wales.

This has raised for me, more questions than it has provided answers.

Reasons for the blackouts have been blamed on a number of issues. Extreme weather events such as forest fires, tornadoes or hurricanes. Overloading of the grid, or a significant imbalance in power supply and demand. Ageing infrastructure and a serious lack of investment into upgrades and maintenance. Plus a cyber attack!

Douglas MacKinnon, writing for Fox News, describes the US grid as “antiquated junk desperately in need of billions of dollars in repair,” while the UK outage saw angry tweets about the “creaking infrastructure” and Tory austerity.

My Ed’s note today, therefore, is less about perceptions or opinions on anything and is more an “Ed’s question” which goes as follows:

  1. Are power outages actually increasing in frequency and scale?
  2. Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way our power systems have been built or are operating?
  3. Would changing or adapting the design of power system infrastructure and distribution infrastructure in particular impact on the likelihood of outages?
  4. Is the expectation that we will have power, 24/7/365 unrealistic? Are expectations that this system will never fail, that someone always has to be accountable, incorrect?
  5. Will modifying recovery processes reduce the scale of outages?
  6. Resilience is designed into transmission and generation sections of the grid – are we doing enough on the distribution side? Do we need more microgrids and local switching? 
  7. Would a move to energy-efficient buildings make a difference? 
  8. The New York outage was reportedly the result of a faulty relay system. Would better testing of equipment (and possibly equipment interoperability) have an effect?
  9. Would storage on the grid help secure it?
  10. Building a lot of additional redundancy into the grid is going to cost – who pays when regulators cap prices and politicians are becoming more vocal about the cost of electricity – but then also are the first to say something when the lights go out? 
  11. At what point is grandstanding by politicians unhelpful to the learning process?
  12. What happens when plans B and C fail?

We’ll explore all of these questions and more in upcoming editions of Smart Energy International and through our website. 

Your opinion matters!

We’d love to hear from you as we continue in our examination of today’s power system infrastructure. Write to me at editorial@smart-energy.com and tell me what your answers are to the questions above – or add some questions of your own.

Wishing you a blackout-free day!


PS: Don’t forget – tomorrow we are hosting a webinar on Horizon 2020 projects which is sure to be interesting and informative.

Join Greenbird CEO Thorsten Heller and Gianluigi Migliavacca, Project coordinator for the SmartNet project, as they discuss their projects, the scope and implications for the energy transition.

Thorsten Heller will discuss the Greenbird Horizon 2020 SME Instrument, Phase 2 project. This project will develop Greenbird’s Utilihive Data Lake to illuminate “dark data” from smart metering for its members, benefitting the utilities using the project by providing a centralised source of unified energy data – providing insights for operational improvements, saving and new services for energy consumers.

The SmartNet project sought to provide answers and propose new practical solutions to the increasing integration of renewable energy sources in the existing electricity transmission network, with a particular focus on both market structures and interactions between TSOs and DSOs.