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End of the world: what will happen if electricity is cut off worldwide

As a result of recent forest fires in California, about 2,5 million people were left without electricity. This caused a flurry of indignation and criticism from both consumers and authorities. Edition with the BBC said what would happen if electricity was cut off around the world.

Фото: Depositphotos

In addition to California, blackouts were also in Venezuela. As patients of Venezuelan hospitals can confirm, the doctors simply could not do anything. In the pitch darkness, broken only by the rays of a pair of flashlights and the shaky light of the screens of smartphones, medical workers watched helplessly as the patient died before their eyes.

An elderly woman was admitted to the hospital with a blood clot in her lungs. A fairly common life-threatening case if appropriate medications and equipment are not used.

Everything the doctors needed to save the woman, including the ventilator, was very close - in the intensive care unit several floors below.

But there was no electricity, and the elevators did not work.

Approximately the same situation was repeated in many hospitals throughout Venezuela in March 2019, when there was a power outage for five days, which further plunged this country into a political and economic crisis.

Hospitals were unprepared for this. Standby generators in a number of medical institutions immediately collapsed, while others had enough energy only for the wards most in need.

When these five days passed, it turned out that 26 people died in hospitals - this was the result of a power outage according to Doctors for Health, which tracks the health crisis in Venezuela.

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Among the deceased patients - those who needed an "artificial kidney" apparatus, and wounded in a shootout, which the surgeons could not operate in almost complete darkness.

They also talked about women who gave birth in dark hospital rooms, surgeons who operated by the light of mobile phone screens, babies who froze in disconnected incubators in neonatal wards.

But the problems affected not only hospitals. Some elderly people living in high-rise buildings had to be carried down the stairs in their arms. People cooked at bonfires and dined by candlelight. Without electricity, food spoiled in quickly heated refrigerators. Traffic lights on the streets did not work, which led to chaos in the transport system.

Pumps pumping water also stopped working, people went for water to rivers and springs. They even used water from the sewer.

During the 2019 year, many blackouts have already occurred in Venezuela. Some of them are short and localized, lasting only a few minutes. To eliminate others, it takes several hours, or even days. Doctors for Health has documented new deaths in hospital patients.

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“Even when there is no electricity in the hospital for four hours, it’s not normal,” said Julio Castro from the School of Medicine of Central University of Venezuela, collecting information for Doctors for Health. - And the situation with water is even worse. Some hospitals even ask patients to bring water with them. ”

The situation that Castro describes is similar to an apocalypse - and this is in a country that just a few years ago was considered one of the richest in South America, because it has the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Although the Venezuelan government blames the saboteurs and terrorists for everything, many indicate that for years nothing has been invested in infrastructure, which has led to the appalling state of the power grid.

However, such long and widespread blackouts do not necessarily occur only in countries on the verge of collapse.

Each year, the homes of millions of people in the US and Canada are plunged into darkness due to storms that damage power lines.

In June 2019, almost all of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay experienced the effects of a blackout that left almost 40 million people without light.

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In the summer of 2012, more than 600 million people in India spent more than two days without electricity. In 2018, the earthquake on the Japanese island of Hokkaido left more than 5 million people without light.

In August 2019 years almost a million people in the UK due to a malfunction in the national energy system, the country was left without electricity. People traveling to work at that moment spent several hours in trains that stopped.

However, all these cases may seem like children's games compared to what blackouts (and with what consequences) experts predict in the future.

The world's growing electricity needs, population growth, and new technologies (such as electric cars) are leading to further disruptions in the supply of energy, especially as we increasingly switch to renewable, but unstable sources of it - wind and sun.

Extreme weather conditions associated with global climate change further increase the risk of blackouts.

“A lot of things in our lives (and almost everything we do) depend on energy supply, especially on electricity,” emphasizes Juliet Mian, CTO at Resilience Shift, an organization that helps prepare for infrastructure failures.

"We used to say" when there will be no light. " But the lack of light is far from the most important thing that worries us, ”says Mian.

And she is right. In the modern world, almost everything - from the financial system to communications - depends on electricity.

Other critical infrastructure elements, such as water supply and sewage systems, rely on pumps driven by electricity. Without electricity, gas stations, traffic signs, traffic lights will not work, and trains will not run.

Trade, the delivery of goods and fuels, food storage systems that rely entirely on computers will stop. Air conditioners, gas boilers, heating systems will not work.

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A little over a century ago, our cities delivered goods and took out garbage, relying solely on the muscular strength of humans and animals. In modern infrastructure, electricity has replaced them.

“Today's world, all its systems are highly interconnected and intertwined. It is very difficult to find a system that is not completely dependent on energy supply, ”says Mian. “A complete shutdown will affect everyone.”

Complete shutdown? But what could be the cause of such a disaster?

In fact, there are many reasons - from natural disasters (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes) to geomagnetic storms caused by solar flares that send charged particles throughout the solar system, creating overload in electrical networks.

In the 1989 year, such a geomagnetic storm caused the 9-hour power outage in large areas of Canada.

Electric Infrastructure Security Council, an international organization that monitors grid threats, also lists human factorsthat may result in a large outage.

Among them are cyberattacks, coordinated physical attacks on infrastructure facilities such as power plants, as well as electromagnetic pulses that can turn off electrical networks.

Measures against such potential threats are costly and complex. Yes, the main infrastructure can be protected from human attacks and electromagnetic pulses. New systems can also be built to protect transformers from solar flares.

But sometimes this happens, the need for protection from which it is impossible to foresee, especially if you take into account the complex, interconnected structure of our electric networks, which makes them especially vulnerable.

Let us recall at least what happened in September 2003, when a fallen tree cut off an electric wire on an alpine pass leading from Switzerland to Italy. After another 24 minutes, another tree fell onto a power line at the famous Great Saint Bernard Pass.

An unexpected disconnection of the two lines caused an overload of the European networks, as a result of which the power plants stopped throughout Italy.

The whole European country was left without electricity due to two fallen trees that provoked the domino effect.

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Modern electric power networks are very complex and combined into a single system. Most of Europe is now huge power grid - possibly the largest in the world.

It supplies electricity to over 400 million consumers in 24 countries. The US electrical system consists of five different electrical networks.

But there are specialists who are looking for ways to predict power outages and involve artificial intelligence in solving this complex problem.

For example, if a power plant fails, it dramatically increases the load on the others included in this network, their generators work more slowly, and the voltage drops throughout the network.

As a result, there is a risk of destabilizing the fragile balance between the power grids. Operators have to take measures very quickly, almost instantly, to prevent the disconnection of entire sections of networks.

Researchers from the German Ilmenau Institute, a member of the leading European association of applied research institutes Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (Fraunhofer Society), recently reported that they are developing an artificial intelligence system that can automatically detect such network problems and take steps to eliminate them.

Department eUS energy industry invests 7 million dollars in research funding ways to use the artificial intelligence to predict accidents in the power grid, and also - in case of malfunctions - to maintain the supply of electricity at the same level.

General Electric uses machine learning algorithms to analyze past blackouts due to the vagaries of the weather, as well as field information from personnel, to predict the damage that storms and hurricanes can cause, and to properly locate repair crews in the event of an accident.

“Electricity networks can take care of creating large reserves of energy for a rainy day - for example, in large batteries.But it’s almost impossible to completely protect our electrical networks from malfunctions, ”Mian emphasizes.

“We cannot create a system in which blackouts do not happen,” she says. “Our networks are so complex that when the outages begin, the domino effect begins to act, and often this simply cannot be avoided. But we can develop systems that will respond very quickly to crashes and recover quickly. ”

That's what Resilience Shift is working on right now. In collaboration with the Council for the Safety of Electric Power Infrastructure, it organizes studies for large organizations, universities, schools, community groups and even families, preparing them for the right actions in cases of large-scale and long-term blackouts.

The domino effect in such situations carries the main danger. As the citizens of Venezuela already know, when the power is cut off, even services such as water supply cease to function.

“In the end, we're kind of going back to the Middle Ages,” says John Helzel, director of resilience planning for the Electricity Infrastructure Safety Council.

В University College London report describes how a power outage will affect life - from the inability to provide medical assistance to citizens to a complete stop of the transport system.

There will be severe social consequences. Usually during outages there is a jump in crime - darkness and broken alarms open up more opportunities for theft and fraud.

ATMs and readers will stop working, and a society that is used to relying on electronic payments will be forced to return to cash. But how many now keep a large supply of cash under their mattress?

The connection will not work, and you will no longer be able to find out on WhatsApp from a loved one how his affairs are. Persons with disabilities and the elderly will be completely isolated.

Without power supply, a business cannot do business, and the economic effect of all this will be unpredictable. In 2004, the US Department of Energy Unveiled outage damage assessment in the USA - about 80 billion dollars a year.

When in October 2019, 2 million consumers in California were left without electricity for two days, experts estimated the damage to the economy at about 2,5 billion.

John Heltzel knows like no one what chaos a large-scale power outage can lead to - for 33 of the year he served as Brigadier General of the National Guard in Kentucky.

“In 2009, a series of icy storms and snowstorms fell upon the state, wires were broken under the weight of ice and adhering snow.The icing was so severe that the metal structures that withstood the hurricane winds collapsed, ”he recalls. “The wooden posts broke like toothpicks.”

“The whole west of Kentucky turned out to be disconnected,” says Heltzel. - A state of emergency was declared in 114 of 120 counties. People could not leave home to go shopping at the store. Wells froze, municipal water supply systems did not work, people sat hungry. The connection also disconnected, and it was impossible to call and ask for help. ”

The Kentucky National Guard mobilized 12 thousand reservists to go around the house, door-to-door, and provide people with food.

Emergency generators were delivered to resume water supply. Emergency communications stations were brought in from other states to make radio and telephone communications work.

And with all this, the most affected areas remained without electricity for weeks.

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“We delivered repairmen on our helicopters wherever they needed to, in all places of the cliffs,” Heltzel recalls. “But even with all the resources involved, it took more than a month for all the houses to be reconnected.”

About 35 people in Kentucky and 30 in neighboring states died in those weeks. The cause of at least eight deaths was carbon monoxide poisoning from the operation of diesel generators and kerosene heaters, which were used indoors without proper ventilation.

That is why Heltzel believes that preparation and planning for large-scale power outages is so important - especially for large organizations and hospitals.

But each of us can take certain steps so that the disaster does not take by surprise. You can start with such simple things as flashlights and a sufficient number of spare batteries for them, as well as creating reserves of drinking water.

The International Organization for Electricity Infrastructure Safety Council recommends that you have a two-week supply of water at the rate of 2 liters per day per person and one liter per pet.

It is also worth making sure that the house has a stock of non-perishable products - rice, pasta, canned vegetables.

But Heltzel and his team also have several non-banal tips in store. Canned baby food, for example, is a very nutritious thing, even if there are no babies in your home.

The supply of black garbage bags is also important - they will help you get rid of waste products when there is no water in the toilet and the only way out will be to take everything out onto the street (the bag is secured with the toilet seat).

Think about always having a cash supply at home for a rainy day. It can save your life.

“We would like that in an emergency, people would not be a problem, but a solution to the problem, not victims, but those who help reconstruction work, help those who were not ready for an emergency,” Heltzel says.

“The behavior of physicians in Venezuela is a good example. With each new outage, the number of deaths in hospitals has steadily declined.Partly because shutdowns became shorter, but also because hospital workers were already better prepared for them, ”says Julio Castro.

Now they make sure that the hospital has enough fuel, and all the backup generators are working, ”he says. - They have compiled a special shift schedule in case they need to manually ventilate the lungs and so on. All this saves people life. ”

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