The temperature is 100 degrees and we have no air conditioning, no running water, no telephone and no Internet. It’s been 60 hours since our household lost electricity because of the super derecho, a rare surprise storm that swept ten US states and the nation’s capital on June 29.
About 5 million of us suddenly are living in conditions of a century earlier. And as we fumble in the dark, it’s easy to see how vulnerable our profound reliance on electricity makes us.
The notion of grid reliability is embedded deeply in the American psyche. We are so accustomed to electricity flowing, we can barely comprehend its absence. By habit, we still flip on the light switch when entering a room, even after the power has been out for hours.
We have good reason to trust. After all, behind the switch is the world’s largest machine, the North American power grid. With 211,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5,800 power plants feeding electricity to our homes and businesses, the grid is an engineering wonder.
A wonder – until a storm, or a heat wave, or even a squirrel chewing the right wire in the right place knocks out power to large swaths of customers.
It is the grid’s size and interconnectivity that makes it remarkable and efficient, but also susceptible to widespread mishap. We saw that most clearly in the Northeast Blackout of 2003, when a cascading event caused failures that tumbled quickly from neighborhood to neighborhood, state to state, finally leaving 50 million without power.
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