Blackouts of Two Types

By: Peter Goodchild

We may need to distinguish more clearly between two types of major blackouts: (1) those caused by mechanical failure and (2) those caused by lack of energy source (coal, natural gas, uranium, whatever). The two would take place, and also would be observed, in very different ways.

Type I is exemplified by the big one of August 14, 2003 in northeastern North America. A small mechanical failure causes an unpredictable and instant failure of electrical power over a large area. There is no warning and no means of taking precautions, and the failure is total darkness, not merely a dimming. On the other hand, power is restored in a matter of hours or days.

Type II is common in many parts of the world today, and even California has seen this on occasion. The failure of power may take the form of either “brownouts” or “rolling blackouts.” “Brownouts” are reductions in voltage, not always noticeable except perhaps by erratic behavior from the TV or a grunt from the refrigerator. “Rolling blackouts,” on the other hand, are total (or near-total) shut-downs of power, and these may be planned and announced, moving from one neighborhood to another and cutting off all but essential services.

Duncan does not seem to distinguish these two types clearly, although he does refer to brownouts and rolling blackouts. But it may be that he is wrong to speak of Type II (as I call it) resulting in a “cliff” with sudden catastrophic results.

Anatoly Karlin notes that a massive failure of electricity due to energy shortage (my Type II) would quite possibly not be as swift as Duncan implies, at least in the early years of collapse, mainly because there is a good deal of waste that could be eliminated beforehand:

“. . . The electric grid can always be downsized. In rich nations, there is still a great deal of ‘fat’ that can be cut out before energy shortages really start gnawing at the roots of industrial civilization; the most underdeveloped countries are little dependent on electricity in any case. . . . Though oil is doubtless crucial towards core functions like maintaining the industrial system (e.g. mining, fertilizer production, etc.), it should be noted that much of it is currently ‘wasted’ on American suburbia, cheap Chinese consumer goods and other things whose loss will not immediately herald the fall of industrial civilization.”

However, even if this second type may at first seem less harmful than a mechanical failure, the difference is that the problem will eventually last more than a few hours or days. In fact, when the energy shortage is global, i.e. there is a permanent decline in fuels, there will come a point at which the lights go out everywhere, never to come on again.

About the author: Peter Goodchild is the author of ‘Survival Skills of the North American Indians’ (Chicago Review Press). Click here to mail him.