Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Summer’s Heat Shows Vulnerability of Power Grid

A major heat wave has caused temperatures to rise along parts of North-Eastern North America – but hey, it’s summer time – that’s not new.

Nor is the fact that our ageing and antiquated power supply system fails when we need it most.

Every summer, there are days of excessive heat, followed by warnings from local power companies to cut back on air conditioning use during business hours, otherwise rolling brownouts or blackouts may occur.

The warnings aren’t followed, and what happens?

Hydro vault fires, power failures stretching vast distances, and some of the most heavily populated areas in North America go without electricity for hours.

That’s what happened yesterday in Canada’s largest city of Toronto, right at the start of the afternoon rush hour.

Thousands of people working in skyscrapers hundreds of floors high had to hustle single-file down emergency stairwells to escape the stale hot air, as the air conditioners ceased to function in buildings where the windows don’t open.

Once those thousands of people did manage to get down to street level, they were sucked into a flood of thousands more, wandering around, wondering what to do. Traffic lights were out, subways and streetcars were stopped dead, forcing pretty much everyone in the affected areas out onto the streets, causing chaos and confusion.

That is if you got down – hundreds in elevators across the city when the power went out were stuck mid-floor. One person even used social networking site twitter.com, to “tweet” Toronto’s Mayor in a panic about being stuck in the elevator. The Mayor tweeted back emergency contact info, and eventually emergency services freed those in that particular elevator.

Memories of the major blackout in 2003, which darkened the United States and Canada along the North Eastern Seaboard for days returned.

Memories of summers past, with short, flashes of power outages (brownouts) and longer, blackouts lasting hours returned.

Despite our advances in technology, causing a constant increase in electricity demand – and a subsequent increase in the cost to consumers for that electricity -- our power grids continue to take a back seat to improvements.

Even though most high tech toys these days are mobile, we still need to plug them in to charge them prior to going mobile. Think about all our smart phones, cordless phones and laptops. Toss in our usual electric appliances like fridges, stoves, toasters and televisions, and it doesn’t take a genius to see we are completely at the mercy of the power company to keep us fed, informed and in touch with our loved ones.

Over the years, the costs of electricity in North America have continued to rise – about two percent per year since 1990.

Yet when we hit a couple of days when we the paying customer really need to use electricity – during a heat wave to cool our schools, offices and homes – the power company warns us to cut back our use, or the system will do it for us.

Granted, hitting this excessive demand isn’t an everyday occurrence. But then, it isn’t as if we haven’t hit these high levels of electrical consumption ever before. We average about two days every summer in North America when we do just that.

SO, why is it that despite all the technological advances, all the increases in power consumption and subsequent raises in electricity rates to us paying consumers, and all the previous days, every year, where we hit excessive demand of the power grid, that our power grid can’t handle it?

Shouldn’t our power companies have resolved these problems long ago? What the hell are they using the added revenue from constant price increases on? Why aren’t the power companies using the latest technologies to ensure these regular power outages every summer are ended?

Perhaps, because of our dependence upon the electrical grid to power our world, the power companies don’t feel obligated to improve their products or services – where else are we going to go to keep our homes cooled in the summer, lit at night and our tummies full?

Maybe now is the time to look at setting up our own individual solar and wind-power systems, to end the reliance on a faulty – and poorly maintained – power grid?

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