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August 10, 2010 / Dave Gorham

Blackouts: Par for the Course

I was listening to the radio a few days ago and the news anchor was talking about rolling blackouts due to the excessive heat in many areas of the country. “Here we go again,” I thought. After all, it’s the first week in August and we’ve seen this before. Seems California and the East Coast are most affected. Maybe it’s just because there are more people in those areas, and maybe there are more vocal people in those areas, too.

Regardless, it doesn’t seem like Texas has the blackouts, and for this I am thankful. But it’s not my imagination: The East Coast really does suffer outages more than other areas. According to a 2008 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, utilities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania averaged 214 minutes of total power interruptions (not counting severe weather or other natural disasters) while utilities in such regions as Minnesota to Kansas experienced only 92 minutes, on average, per year. Japan, at the other end of the spectrum, suffers just four minutes of interruptions per year.

Perhaps I should say Texas doesn’t have the blackouts yet? A power grid can only provide so much power to so many people and with cities like Austin and Houston gaining significant population on a monthly basis, perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we, too, experience what so many others have been dealing with already for so many years. Then again, maybe not. Austin is nationally recognized as being years ahead of the rest of the country in terms of smart grid technology and installation of digital electricity meters, while Texas is one of the largest providers of renewable energy.

And then yesterday I heard on the same radio station a story about the “smart grid.” Using digital technology at both the supplier and consumer ends, new meters and software are able to pump the electricity where and when it’s needed with minimal waste. Some consumers can even volunteer to have their thermostats remotely controlled by their utilities. In exchange for rebates, reduced rates or other financial incentives, consumers give the green light (an LED, I hope) to the utility to cycle off their power and divert that power elsewhere. My brother in Phoenix subscribes to such a plan, while I voluntarily requested a smart meter at my house in conjunction with the installation of solar panels on my roof.

My solar panels.

What do the next 10 years hold? More people, more heat, more blackouts? I disagree. The smart grid is becoming less of a novelty and more mainstream, while utilities modernize, and more consumers are becoming aware of their actions, their carbon footprints and are beginning to consider the benefits of their new digital meters, renewable energy and the advantages to not only their neighbors and their city, but also to their pocketbook. I think that despite the additional people and the higher demand for electricity rolling blackouts will become a thing of the past. In the same breath however, I will acknowledge that more people and higher electricity demands is a much bigger issue than digital meters and smart grid technology.

I can view my consumed vs. generated (solar) power online.

Meanwhile the heat continues. And not only in the U.S. Russia has been under the grip of an unprecedented heat wave. I posted about it yesterday — experts there are saying the heat wave is not only unlike anything in recent memory but unlike anything ever. As those residents with AC crank down the thermostats, power blackouts increase; the relationship is inversely proportional.

Red areas show expected excessive heat today. Image: ImpactWeather Gmaps.

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