ELECTRICITY FUELS OUR EXISTENCE.
It powers water purification, waste, food, transportation, security and communication
systems. Life in modern society is impossible to imagine without it. This article looks
at what happens when the power goes off, scrutinizing the social consequences of
electrical power cuts.
Power generation systems are undoubtedly critical
infrastructures. But they are more fragile than is
commonly supposed, and there is plenty of evidence
they are getting frailer. Recent blackouts are dress
rehearsals for a future in which they will appear with
greater frequency and greater severity, due to growing
uncertainties in supply and growing certainties
Supply is generally taken for granted in western societies.
Such is our dependence that our comfort, security,
communication systems, transport, health, food
supply, businesses and social equity systems struggle
when electricity supplies are interrupted. Continuing
sophistication and prevalence of electrical appliances
only serves to increase our dependence. In the digital
world, interruptions and disturbances less than 1 cycle
(1/60th second) can have catastrophic effects.
We now face a significant social problem. Increasing
numbers of people are living longer and enjoying rising
living standards. In 2008, the world’s population was
“ … our comfort, security,
transport, health, food
supply, businesses and
social equity systems
struggle when electricity
supplies are interrupted.”
6,700,000,000, predicted to rise to 8,500,000,000 by
2035 with demand for electricity estimated to grow in
that time by a staggering 80%.
This will require an additional 5,900 gigawatts of
capacity, according to the IEA. No one knows how this
will be generated.
Irrespective of their cause, research has shown that
social impact patterns emerge when blackouts occur.
This is generally measured by loss of sales or production.
Losses can vary considerably from minor inconvenience
when the ATM system fails (UK 2009) to major
• The Venezuelan government extended the Easter
Holiday period in 2010 to reduce critical electricity
demand. Rolling blackouts resulted in loss of
production and food supply shortages.
• In January 2008 South Africa’s three largest gold
mines and two largest platinum mines were shut