Sunday, October 01, 2017

Puerto Rico: When the electricity stops

When the electricity stops in modern civilization, pretty much everything else stops. Not even gasoline-powered vehicles can get far before they are obliged to seek a fill-up—which they cannot get because gas pumps rely on electricity to operate.

When I wrote "The storms are only going to get worse" three weeks ago, I thought the world would have to wait quite a while for a storm more devastating than hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But instead, Hurricane Maria followed right after them and shut down electricity on the entire island of Puerto Rico except for those buildings with on-site generators.

Another casualty was drinking water because, of course, in almost every location, it must be moved using pumps powered by electricity. In addition, the reason we remain uncertain of the full scope of the damage and danger on the island is that the communications system (powered by electricity, of course) failed almost completely.

The Associated Press reported that as of September 30, 10 days after Maria's landfall, about 30 percent of telecommunications had been restored, 60 percent of the gas stations were able to dispense fuel and half of the supermarkets were open.

Presumably, these figures represent mostly urban areas where any single act of repair can restore services to many more people than in the countryside where conditions by all accounts remain desperate.

Unless power is restored soon to those areas still without it, many of life's daily necessities—food, water, medicine—will remain beyond reach for substantial portions of Puerto Rico's residents. The consequences of this are both predictable and dire. But the expectations are that weeks and months may pass before electricity again reaches the entire island.

If that turns out to be the case, then those who are able will simply leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, most probably to the U.S. mainland—something they are entitled to do as American citizens. The United States is unprepared for such a massive wave of migration if it develops.

Electricity is the essential pillar upon which the operations of all modern industrial societies depend. And yet, it is something that remains impossible to stockpile in large amounts; nearly all electricity is consumed as it is produced. Its transmission remains all too vulnerable to bad weather which we now know is only going to get worse—not only hurricanes but also ice and snow storms which will increase in frequency and severity as the atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor (because warmer air can hold more moisture).

Part of the question the United States and the world will be answering when deciding on how and what to rebuild in Puerto Rico is how much are we willing to spend on making infrastructure climate-change proof when climate change is a moving target. We do not now know how "hard" we will have to make any rebuilt infrastructure in Puerto Rico because we do not know for certain the ultimate severity of climate change through the lifetime of the infrastructure being built. It would be foolish to rebuild infrastructure that will simply blow down or flood out in the next major hurricane or one just 10 years from now.

While contemplating such dangers, the world remains largely oblivious to an unparalleled danger to the electric grid, one that dwarfs what climate change is ever likely to threaten: electromagnetic pulse or EMP.

Two sources of EMP, a coronal mass ejection from the Sun and the detonation of a nuclear bomb at high altitude are real threats. What makes North Korea such a menace is not the few nuclear weapons which the country apparently has, but the possibility that it could detonate one at high altitude and thereby cripple much of the electrical infrastructure of the country targeted. (Whether it has a weapon of sufficient power and the ability to deliver it high into the atmosphere above the United States or another country is unknown. Not surprisingly, the nuclear facilities of the U.S. military have been hardened against such an attack so as to assure a retaliatory capability in the event of a first strike.)

The possibility of a coronal mass ejection of sufficient power to cripple the world's electrical system, however, is not theoretical. Just such an event, known as the Carrington Event, took place in 1859. Back then it dazzled viewers of the sky worldwide while burning up telegraph lines. Today, it would shut down much if not most of the globe's electrical infrastructure.

What Hurricane Maria has done to Puerto Rico reminds us of how vulnerable systems critical to the daily operation of industrial society remain. We have options: one is a more decentralized, renewable energy system hardened against EMP. But we do not yet have the foresight and the will to realize such a system anytime soon.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


lyle said...

Re water in PR: It does rain a lot and folks in the country probably should have at least rain barrels on their downspouts, if not cisterns (as folks used to do, my Grandparents house had a cistern that could be fed with runoff from the roof) Rainwater is generally safe to drink. In that case you could get by at least without pumped water for a while. What this does suggest is that rain barrels should be pushed nation wide (today they are pushed only in the western US) If concerned about water purity purification tablets are available at camping stores.

ChemEng said...

Another consequence of all these disruptions is that people lose their jobs. The last time that we were in Puerto Rico there were four or five huge cruise ships in San Juan. Given that these ships will not return for weeks or months what will happen to those who depend on the tourist industry (restaurant workers, taxi drivers, tour guides, and so on)?

Even if the electricity is restored they will not have the income to benefit from it.

Anonymous said...

Kurt - it is very good to read a critique of the utterly false hope of adapting to intensifying climate destabilization - such is the 'management' of current mindsets that the obvious impracticality of adaption is rarely discussed even across the declining quality and number of climate blogs, let alone the MSM.

One aspect that seems to me critical is that there is a massive and largely unrecognized feedback in terms of the declining ability to adapt to the rising impacts of global heating - since those impacts directly impose impoverishment on the majority of people who cannot afford insurance.

Moreover, when uninsured assets such as houses, livestock, farm buildings and equipment and farmland are destroyed, the collateral forming the basis of their former owners' creditworthyness is also lost, as is their purchasing ability within the economy, thus extending the impoverishment effect right back to the larger organisations and wealthier individuals whose routine insurance is supposed to provide protection.

The destruction of capital assets thus diminishes society's capacity to invest in adaption measures, while at the same time the scale and frequency of major impacts continues to rise.

As Ghandi remarked, "Impoverishment is the greatest violence." As people sufferring impoverishment start to realize that the only rational explanation for US inaction on and obstruction of global efforts to halt AGW is of a longstanding covert policy to block China's drive to global economic dominance by the climatic destabilization of its agriculture - while giving a damn for the "collateral damage" worldwide - so those people will become very pissed off indeed.

The sooner the better in my view.


Amazed! said...

"Today, it would shut down much if not most of the globe's electrical infrastructure."

You understate the enormity of a Carrington Event. Your use of language implies that it would re-open once the event had passed.

The electrical infrastructure would not be "shut down" - it would be instantly destroyed!
All microchips would be fried, and the factories making micro chips destroyed too. Any surplus chips would be destroyed. Only Faraday cage-protected items would not be destroyed,

Planes would literally drop out of the sky.
Every electrical appliance would cease to work - even if you could somehow generate electricity.

There would be a rapid mass human die-off.

It is estimated that these types of coronal mass ejections occur around once every 100 years. We are well overdue for one.