Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reliability of electricity

Last week we were out in Edinburg/Woodstock area near the Shenandoah Mountains. As is sometimes the case, we came across a bulletin board outside a realtor’s office and looked at what was available for sale in the area.

I was a little surprised to see a home for sale with a whole house generator. These have become quite popular in recent years with an increasingly (and seemingly) unreliable power grid. I was surprised for several reasons:

  1. I expected more homes in rural areas to be more off the grid than most, i.e. propane for heating and perhaps for running electricity, septic tank, well water, etc.
  2. I expected people from rural Virginia to be hardier than Washingtonians (then again, perhaps the seller was a Washington transplant - or perhaps I have a misplaced bias)
  3. I expected that dense cities were more vulnerable in terms of length of outage and people affected than rural Virginia. The flip side is that the more rural you are the less likely that restoration will be quicker since utilities tend to emphasize fixes that put the most people back online as soon as possible.

Most disturbing was the sense that perhaps electricity has become much more unreliable in recent years. Unfortunately, there appears to be no good data on the reliability of the electric grid. Scientific American reports based on an MIT report:

“Data on outages are neither comprehensive nor consistent, however. Most outages occur within distribution systems, but only 35 U.S. States require utilities to report data on [distribution outages]… it is accordingly impossible to make comprehensive comparisons across space or over time.”

The World Bank carries out surveys of electricity outages and its effects on manufacturing industries but the US is a non-respondent. A backup power supplier, Eaton has a report of blackouts in the United States (register for download) but only has data for 3 years which makes it hard to detect a trend.

More promising are reports from LBL, in particular this and this. From the latter, is the conclusion of a study in January 2012:

In other words, we still don’t know what we don’t know.

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