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When the Lights Go Out

The Destabilization of America’s Electricity Supply

June 2023

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

“PROGRESS.”

It’s a word by which America defines itself.

With every generation we expect more.

Bigger. Better. Faster. More Affordable.

And we usually get it.

Your next car might drive itself.

Your next vacation might be to space.

And your next home … may all of a sudden lose power without explanation.

Yeah, we might’ve screwed that one up.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

“The world’s largest machine” — that’s the term that’s sometimes used to describe America’s electrical grid.i

Less than 150 years ago, the country’s electricity infrastructure consisted only of Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street station in Manhattan — and its 59 customers.ii

Today? The grid is made up of 3,000 utilities, 11,000 power plants, and more than 2 million miles of power lines.iii

It’s an incredibly intricate system bringing power to hundreds of millions of people.

One problem: it’s getting worse at bringing power to hundreds of millions of people.

In the year 2000, there were fewer than two dozen major power disruptions in the United States. In 2020, there were 180.iv

From just 2013 to 2020, the length of time that Americans had to endure power outages more than doubled.v

Over 2 million people without power during California’s wildfire season in 2019.vi Even more in Texas during winter storms in 2021.vii Most of the state of Louisiana in the dark after a hurricane later that year.viii Rolling blackouts during a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest.ix

And those blackouts aren’t just inconvenient; they’re dangerous. As one utility consultant told the New York Times, “This is like brain surgery. You don’t make mistakes. People die when you mess it up.”x

No pressure, guys.

So, why can’t we keep the lights on? Well, there are a number of factors at work.

For one thing, a lot of our energy infrastructure is old. Really old. As in “some of it has been around for more than 100 years” old.xi And over 70 percent of the lines used for power transmission and distribution are approaching the end of their lifecycles.xii

Another problem: more extreme weather events,xiii especially since much of America’s electricity infrastructure is above ground and thus more vulnerable to the elements.xiv

But here’s where it gets weird: The grid is also getting less reliable … because we’re making it less reliable.

Here’s how it works: America’s electricity comes from a lot of different sources. In 2022, 40 percent of it came from natural gas, about 20 percent from coal, and a little over 18 percent from nuclear.xv Now, there’s an obvious question here: What about renewable sources like wind and solar?

That question is so obvious, in fact, that a lot of politicians are asking it too, which is why more than half of the states in the country are now required by law to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables.xvi In 10 of them, the requirement is that they eventually get 100 percent of their electricity from renewables.xvii

And … that doesn’t sound bad, right? If it’s all the same, why not use cleaner, more affordable power sources?

Well, here’s the thing: It’s not all the same. In fact, the way we’re using renewables is making it more likely that we’ll have more blackouts in our future.

One of the reasons that energy sources like wind and solar haven’t traditionally provided much of our electricity is pretty basic: There are big stretches of time when they don’t produce any energy at all.xviii

At night or when it’s cloudy: No solar power. Not so much as a breeze outside? No wind power.

So, how do we manage this problem? So far, the answer has been to use renewable sources when they’re available — and then conventional energy sources when they’re not.

Wind stops blowing? Fire up the natural gas. Sun stops shining? Start burning some coal. Now, that means that all those renewable energy requirements aren’t that realistic — but, hey, it also means your air conditioning stays on during a heat wave.

But here’s where things get really tricky. As there’s increasing pressure to move to renewable sources, many of those conventional power sources we rely on to make sure the lights stay on are shutting down. Which means that when renewables falter — whether in extreme weather or even just a series of cloudy days … it’s more likely that there won’t be enough electricity to go around.xix And the implications are pretty sobering.

In 2022, the organization that monitors the grid’s reliability warned that most of the country was going to be at an elevated risk of power outages in the next five years.xx The year prior, they cautioned that the risks associated with relying too heavily on renewables were “inconsistent with electric power’s essentiality to the continent’s economy as well as the health and safety of its population.”xxi And the language there is modest, but that’s a lawyer’s way of saying “we’re %@$%#$.”

What does this world of shortages look like? Well, ask the people in California, who, a week after their state voted to eventually move entirely to electric cars … asked them not to charge their electric cars.xxii Or the people in New York, who’ve been told that their grid could fail if the temperature reaches 98 degrees.xxiii Or the owners of smart thermostats in Colorado … who were locked out of being able to turn up their air conditioning during a heat wave. xxiv

That’s not most people’s idea of progress. Whatever goals we have for the country’s energy production, Americans have to have the power they need to do their jobs, cook their food, or power their medical devices.

And, of course, the power they need to watch Kite & Key videos.

I mean, it’s a quality-of-life issue. Obviously.

Source(s)

  1. "How Does the U.S. Power Grid Work?" (James McBride, Anshu Siripurapu) — Council on Foreign Relations
  2. When Edison Lit Up Manhattan — New-York Historical Society
  3. "How Does the U.S. Power Grid Work?" (James McBride, Anshu Siripurapu) — Council on Foreign Relations
  4. "America’s Power Grid Is Increasingly Unreliable" (Katherine Blunt) — Wall Street Journal
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Tempers Flare as Millions in California Endure Power Outages From PG&E" (Taryn Luna, Patrick McGreevy, Joseph Serna) — Los Angeles Times
  7. "Burst Pipes and Power Outages in Battered Texas" (Campbell Robertson) — New York Times
  8. "Why Louisiana’s Electric Grid Failed in Hurricane Ida" (Ivan Penn) — New York Times
  9. "Over 100 Deaths May Be Tied To Historic Northwest Heat Wave" (Jim Morris, Andrew Selsky) — PBS NewsHour
  10. "Poor Planning Left California Short of Electricity in a Heat Wave" (Ivan Penn) — New York Times 
  11. 2021 Report Card for America's Infrastructure — American Society of Civil Engineers
  12. Ibid. 
  13. "Extreme Weather and Climate Vulnerabilities of the Electric Grid: A Summary of Environmental Sensitivity Quantification Methods" (Melissa R. Allen-Dumas, Binita KC, Colin I. Cunliff) — U.S. Department of Energy
  14. "How Does the U.S. Power Grid Work?" (James McBride, Anshu Siripurapu) — Council on Foreign Relations
  15. What Is U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source? — U.S. Energy Information Administration
  16. State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals — National Conference of State Legislatures
  17. Ibid.
  18. "The Grid Isn’t Ready for the Renewable Revolution" (Matt Simon) — Wired
  19. Ibid.
  20. 2022 Long-Term Reliability Assessment — North American Electric Reliability Corporation, p. 6
  21. 2021 Long-Term Reliability Assessment — North American Electric Reliability Corporation, p. 5
  22. "Amid Heat Wave, California Asks Electric Vehicle Owners To Limit Charging" (Livia Albeck-Ripka) — New York Times 
  23. The Path to a Reliable, Greener Grid for New York: The New York ISO Annual Grid & Markets Report — New York Independent System Operator
  24. "Thousands of Xcel Energy Rewards Customers Were Hot After Losing Control of Thermostats" (Kieran Nicholson) — The Denver Post

Shownotes

Sound | Artlist: "Fortitude" Lance Conrad, “Wah Companion" Stefano Mastronardi, "Lost Highway" Luke Melville // Premium Beat: "Zoom Zoom" Gyom // Artlist SFX Library 

Footage | CNBC // E&E News // The New York Times // The Wall Street Journal // The Spirit of Halloween // North American Electrical Reliability Corporation // New York Independent System Operator: Power Trends 2022 // Library of Congress: Carol M. Highsmith // Prelinger Archives: Master Hands (1936) // The Internet Archive: National Plan Service, Inc // Google Books: Popular Electricity and the World's Advocate, Volume 2 // Getty: Jgareri, NAKphotos, 4x6, M-Gucci, Artjafara, Drbimages, Scott Heins / Stringer, Justockfootage, Gorodenkoff, SVTeam, HACK_CG, Digital Vision, Noppasin Wongchum, SweetBunFactory, ZargonDesign, Bjorn Bakstad, Ilbusca, FerreiraSilva, FPG / Staff, Selamiozalp, Max Moir / 500px, Haapaiglenn, Maddrat, Schlol, Eric Van Den Brulle, Mantosh, Chris Rogers, AlasdairJames, Tetra Images, AscentXmedia, Uuoott, Halbergman, Ezra Shaw / Staff, Jasmin Merdan // Storyblocks: Premiumilk, VladyslavStarozhylov, Kerenby, SVZUL, JustinHorrocks, GraphicAnimation, RichardjJones, Flexx, RedCupStudio, Johnathan001, CloudVisual, Skylightpictures, Kukhunthod, SlicedBread, Secondmilevideo, Oles Ishchuk, ODesigns, Bennyb, ToL, Saydung-CG&VFX, Kasetskiy, A Luna Blue, Vivekfx, Artiemedvedev, Alex Videoboy, Bussker, Alixmillet, Motionblock, Dan Jesperson, Berkerdag, Emiryorda, The Stock Studio, Vadim_Key, WhiteMountMedia, SpaceStockFootage, Amazing Aerial, Borovikk, HalfPoint, Pressmaster Production Studio, DeRepente // Adobe Stock: NotjungCG, Stokkete, Atlas, Lemanieh, LoloStock, DifferR, Xookit, Pingebat, Olesia_g, Asier, Metamorworks, Vegefox.com, Petkov, Clearviewstock, Francis, Sripfoto, Andras_csontos, Ville, Prostock-studio, Jordan, Rawpixel.com // Flickr: Brewbooks, RawPixel Ltd., U.S. Department of Energy, Greg Goebel // Unsplash: R ARCHITECTURE, Matt Tsai, Alexander Grey, Sven D, Redd F, Zak Boca, Thomas Reaubourg, Paul Weaver, Rachel Son // Pexels: Thalia Perla, Samazing Family // Vecteezy: Ruslan Nesterenko, Denys Drozd, Godline Art, Jayali.667571954, Adam Lapuník, Ayub Irawan, Circlon Tech, Timplaru Emil, Thomaseder151270435398, Organicon Design, Ylivdesign32835, Asim Faraz, Faisal Ical // AleSpa // DanielPenfield // Joe Mabel // N509FZ // ReubenGBrewer // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

Sources

  1. Council on Foreign Relations
    "How Does the U.S. Power Grid Work?" (James McBride, Anshu Siripurapu)
  2. New-York Historical Society
    When Edison Lit Up Manhattan
  3. Wall Street Journal
    "America’s Power Grid Is Increasingly Unreliable" (Katherine Blunt)
  4. Los Angeles Times
    "Tempers Flare as Millions in California Endure Power Outages From PG&E" (Taryn Luna, Patrick McGreevy, Joseph Serna)
  5. New York Times
    "Burst Pipes and Power Outages in Battered Texas" (Campbell Robertson)
  6. New York Times
    "Why Louisiana’s Electric Grid Failed in Hurricane Ida" (Ivan Penn)
  7. PBS NewsHour
    "Over 100 Deaths May Be Tied To Historic Northwest Heat Wave" (Jim Morris, Andrew Selsky)
  8. New York Times 
    "Poor Planning Left California Short of Electricity in a Heat Wave" (Ivan Penn)
  9. American Society of Civil Engineers
    2021 Report Card for America's Infrastructure 
  10. U.S. Department of Energy
    "Extreme Weather and Climate Vulnerabilities of the Electric Grid: A Summary of Environmental Sensitivity Quantification Methods" (Melissa R. Allen-Dumas, Binita KC, Colin I. Cunliff)
  11. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    What Is U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source?
  12. National Conference of State Legislatures
    State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals
  13. Wired
    "The Grid Isn’t Ready for the Renewable Revolution" (Matt Simon)
  14. North American Electric Reliability Corporation
    2022 Long-Term Reliability Assessment
  15. North American Electric Reliability Corporation
    2021 Long-Term Reliability Assessment
  16. New York Times 
    "Amid Heat Wave, California Asks Electric Vehicle Owners To Limit Charging" (Livia Albeck-Ripka)
  17. New York Independent System Operator
    The Path to a Reliable, Greener Grid for New York: The New York ISO Annual Grid & Markets Report
  18. The Denver Post
    "Thousands of Xcel Energy Rewards Customers Were Hot After Losing Control of Thermostats" (Kieran Nicholson)

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