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Suddenly the lights go out and — what then? Most blackouts last just a few hours, but why do they occur? And what happens when they last way longer?

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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H ow much thought do you give to the modern-day miracle of electricity? None, I bet, as you flippantly flip those light switches on and off without a second thought. But what about when you flick that switch and — horrors! — nothing happens?! Um, hello — why is it still dark?! Yup, blackouts are nasty, bothersome things. No light. No heat or AC. No clean laundry. No hot food. No cell phones (once the batteries die, that is). Most blackouts last just a few hours, but why do they occur? And what happens when they last way longer?

Down and Out

Blackouts (a.k.a. power outages) aren’t caused by someone snipping wires (usually!). In fact, about 70% of US power outages have natural causes, things like falling trees and storms. Electricity companies work hard to keep trees from causing blackouts — cutting down trees growing too close to power lines. Obviously, though, they can’t get it right all the time, and trees still sometimes cause damage.

The weather is something no one, not even electricity companies, can control. If you’ve ever had to prepare for a big storm, your survival kit probably included a flashlight along with those piles of tuna and crackers. That’s because severe weather often causes blackouts. Strong winds can pull down cables and even utility poles, and objects sucked up by the wind can smash into power lines.

Natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis, often cause so much damage that millions of people are left without power for days. But it’s not just those big bad storms that make problems. Another menace is dust! Who’da thunk?! That’s not to say you have to worry if you don’t dust on a regular basis. Areas exposed to lots of dust or sandstorms need to make sure their circuit boxes (the box with all the fuses) are protected and closed tight.

Rolling Blackouts

Sometimes an electric company intentionally switches off the power supply. Why? It’s usually to try to prevent a real blackout from happening. Rolling blackouts are carried out when the electric company sees that too many people are using too much power, and the system can’t cope with the excess demand. Instead of waiting around for the system to crash, they turn off the power themselves. But no need to fret or run around switching off all those lights. Rolling blackouts usually take place only in developing countries (third-world countries), where the infrastructure (stuff like plumbing and electricity) isn’t as advanced.

In some countries, in fact, like Egypt, India, and Pakistan, rolling blackouts are simply a way of life. The governments in these countries aren’t very stable, and when a government is unstable, so are most other things, including electricity. The citizens of these countries are pretty much resigned to the fact that their power supply is on again/off again, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. In Pakistan, especially, the power shortage is so severe that people often take to the streets to protest the lack of electricity.

On the Grid

What do electric companies do to prevent blackouts? Well, besides keeping trees out of the way, companies strengthen their infrastructures against wind and rain. They also make sure their technology is up to date so they can quickly identify where something went wrong and fix the problem.

In the olden days, utility companies had to send out workers to find the problem. It took hours and hours, maybe even days, until the workers found a tree somewhere causing all the chaos. But with 21st-century technology, utility companies have smart grids — a network of power stations (that produce electricity), power cables (that transport electricity), and all the things in between until the electricity reaches your socket at home. Smart grids have sensors every step of the way that detect when something goes haywire. This lets the folks back at the electric company take care of the problem before it becomes too big.

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