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Power Failures

Phillip F. Schewe

WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT: A History of Blackouts in America. David E. Nye. xii + 292 pp. The MIT Press, 2010. $27.95.

In the developed world, we take the electrical grid for granted. The power flowing through it, like the blood coursing through our veins, is out of sight and out of mind; not thinking about it frees us to worry about other things. Thus we have little awareness of the fact that the force lifting elevators, lighting rooms, warming food, pumping water and powering laptops right now is an artificial, technological contrivance. It’s only when the grid fails, and we no longer have the power it provides at our disposal, that we appreciate it in full. David Nye’s new book, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, is about what happens when that comes to pass.

A blackout is not just an engineering failure. According to Nye, it can also be understood “as a disruption of social experience, as a military tactic, as a crisis in the networked city, . . . as the outcome of inconsistent political and economic decisions,” and more. He takes as his subject not merely the mechanics of blackouts. Ambitiously, he attempts to explore “different social constructions of artificial darkness.”

Nye is a leading historian of energy. In a series of books that includes Electrifying America (1990) and American Technological Sublime (1994), he has imaginatively tracked the evolution of powered technology and its impact on society. He is a master of the splendid factoid. Here are a few from When the Lights Went Out: In 2001, a typical family used more energy in a month than their grandparents used in a year back in 1940. Due to the popularity of air conditioning, on hot days an increase in temperature of 1 degree Fahrenheit results in a 2 percent increase in demand for electric power. And for every degree the temperature rises above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the amount of smog in the air increases by 3 percent.

The electrical grid is patently a human invention serving human needs, and yet disruptions of the network have some of the characteristics usually associated with natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. If you plot the frequency of occurrence for blackouts, or for any of those geophysical events, as a function of the size of the resulting damage, you will observe a curve of universal shape—namely, a falling off proportional to the size raised to a negative power. This power-law behavior is characteristic of complex systems in which many components react with one another quickly and nonlinearly. For the electrical grid, the components consist of engineered devices such as transformers and high-voltage lines rather than natural phenomena such as tectonic faults or cells of warm air over the Caribbean. But the effect can still be the unexpected and disastrous shutdown of civic life.

Nye shows that the blackouts of the 1930s mostly had to do with military exercises. In the buildup to World War II, cities were already expecting aerial bombardment and began practicing self-imposed darkness as an evasionary measure. Later, as grids became more complex, blackouts resulted from an inadequate balance of supply with demand or from poorly designed monitoring equipment.

2010-11BREVScheweFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageNye makes a few minor mistakes. For example, he refers to electricity production in the United States jumping from 161,000 gigawatts in 1939 to 271,000 gigawatts in 1945, when he presumably meant to say gigawatt-hours. And in describing people’s behavior during the 1977 blackout in New York City, he says that “a significant minority of the population saw the power failure . . . as an opportunity for looting or arson.” Use of the term “significant minority” would seem to suggest that perhaps 20 percent or more participated, but this seems unlikely. Were there really millions of looters?

A more important problem is the book’s lack of sustained narrative. The reader has few stories to follow. Each chapter centers on a theme (the grid, war, accident, crisis, rolling blackouts, terror, greenouts), but the chronology often jumps back and forth across decades. And those facts, those fascinating facts, are constantly pouring forth as if to fill some large spreadsheet, with technical innovations running vertically and social consequences running horizontally.

Yet the facts, in the end, are what make the book a worthwhile enterprise. Nye does a fine job of describing the gigantic overhaul of the power industry over the past decade and a half. During this time the original utility companies—many of which once commanded monopoly control over the energy supply of cities—were obliged by market forces or by statute to unbundle their services, sometimes selling off their power plants or transmission lines.

In some respects, this restructuring of the electricity business has streamlined operations. But it has also had negative consequences, as Nye’s book reveals. Individual energy companies, relieved of the comprehensive responsibility to make, transmit and deliver electric power, have little incentive to build more lines, given that those lines can be used by any other company that wants to send power across the country. Add to that the great difficulty of winning approval to build transmission lines through heavily populated stretches of real estate, along with an ongoing jurisdictional battle between federal and state regulators, and what you get is gridlock. Construction of transmission lines is falling further behind the construction of new generating capacity. Like the monitoring of flights in the airspace over busy metropolitan airports, the dispatching of power across regional power pools, which takes place in darkened rooms that look just like air-traffic control centers, has become more challenging. Increasingly, purchases of blocks of power from distant generators are cancelled or delayed owing to temporary congestion on intervening power lines.

Investment risk and regulatory uncertainty increasingly discourage the building of needed new electricity superhighways. Existing lines become more heavily used. As a consequence, most large blackouts now come about because of disruptions on transmission lines. Furthermore, over the past two decades blackouts have increased in size. And a 2005 study by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that electric power outages cost American businesses nearly $80 billion per year.

Nye ably compares the deregulation of electricity markets to the deregulation of the telephone and airline industries. One difference is that the delivery of electricity to a home is still rather a local thing—unlike, say, a phone call between New York and California. And the aviation business, even though it has undergone much restructuring of its own, is still under the watchful eye of the Federal Aviation Administration, which sees to safety and routing issues. There is no such guarantor of electrical reliability. The nonprofit, quasi-governmental agency established for this purpose, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, has guidelines for avoiding blackouts, but many people believe that the penalties for shoddy operations should be stiffened. The power business for the most part is left to regulate itself.

The book ends with a look at things the consumer can do. One is to participate in “greenouts”—voluntary blackouts in which homes or businesses go without electricity for a few hours or a day. Another is to invest in energy-efficient buildings. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings use about 70 percent of all electricity. Thus even small improvements in lighting, heating or insulation can result in big reductions in fuel costs and pollution.

A greenout is worthwhile if it enhances public understanding of energy issues, and in the United States public understanding does appear to have increased slightly. Americans are buying more-efficient appliances and installing fluorescent bulbs. But this isn’t enough. Many European countries with a lifestyle comparable to that of the United States use half the electricity per capita and suffer far fewer blackouts. Europeans pay much more in energy taxes, yes, but this revenue is put to good use in infrastructure investment.

Greenouts are a good way of temporarily underscoring our spendthrift ways. But citizens of the United States and their elected officials need to tackle larger tasks, such as capping carbon dioxide emissions and mandating higher efficiency standards for power plants. Blackouts that leave cities in the dark are disruptive; a dearth of ideas and leadership in Congress is a more profound kind of blackout.

Phillip F. Schewe is chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics. His latest book is The Grid: A Journey Through The Heart of Our Electrified World (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). He is currently writing a biography of the physicist Freeman Dyson.

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