After two weeks without power, civilization collapses

And by the time you read this, Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean Islands will have been without electricity for that long. A German study from 2010 investigated the matter for Europe, just months before Fukushima. Craig Morris retells the tale.

The devastation from the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, which is becoming increasingly vulnerable to disruption (Public Domain).


It’s not often that a novel gets presented by a bureaucrat. But in the case of Blackout by Austrian Marc Elsberg, there was a good reason for the head of Germany’s Network Agency (the grid regulator, a bit like FERC in the US) to do so in 2012: Elsberg’s book describes a Europe-wide blackout.

The timing couldn’t have been better in terms of sales. After the accident in Fukushima, Chancellor Merkel had shut down eight of the country’s 19 nuclear reactors. There was much discussion about whether a blackout would occur in the winter (because of a power shortage) or in the summer (when solar power maxed out – no country had as much solar as Germany did at the time). Elsberg’s book became a bestseller, and readers learned that almost nothing today works without electricity: from water supply to gasoline pumps at filing stations.

In the process, Elsberg’s book may have contributed to the exaggerated concern that Germany’s nuclear phaseout and the fast growth of wind and solar might endanger civilization itself. But Germany made it through the winter after Fukushima without any blackouts and has had none since.

Elsberg started work on the book in 2008. Just before he finished, Germany’s Office of Technology Assessment (TAB) published its own scientific study on what an extended blackout would look like (PDF in German). Entitled “The vulnerability of modern societies: a case study of a large-scale blackout,” the study revealed lots of scary things.

For instance, people would not only be without drinking water, but the piping itself would become “irreparably” contaminated within weeks. Chaos would quickly break out because all forms of communication – cell phones, radio, television, internet, etc. – would stop working, and people would lack power for batteries in their devices anyway (how many of you have a hand-crank flashlight or radio?). Those with backup generators would run out of fuel because the authorities would confiscate the available supply (fuel pumps require power) for emergency services.

Elsberg took account of some findings from the study in his novel, but he says he basically already had the situation described well. For the first few days, people deal with the inconvenience well. Everyone has a little food and water at home, and grocery stores contain a few days of supplies as well. But without power, you can’t withdraw money from the bank. There is a run on the stores, and prices quickly stretch out of control. Things not needed for survival become worthless, while food and water become unaffordable.

After the first few days, people begin to starve. The strong start to force their will on others; the rule of law collapses. Those with guns use them (Germans have lots of guns). Citizens are reduced to barbarians as they fight to survive.

Of course, the situation in the Caribbean is not quite the same as in Elsberg’s novel, in which every still had their homes. Puerto Rico, Barbuda, and several other Caribbean islands are practically uninhabitable at present. Their suffering has only begun. Solar panels with battery storage are great in case of blackouts, and the role of distributed renewables is the biggest factor disregarded in Elsberg’s novel. But solar is only good if your roof and walls are still intact. On the other hand, if your house is the only one with power, the neighbors will soon come by, and you’ll be asked to share – possibly at gunpoint. In Elsberg’s novel, the government’s first action when power is restored after 13 days is a general amnesty; no crimes committed during the blackout will be investigated. Courts could not have handled all the cases.

When I visited my home town of New Orleans five months after Katrina in 2005, the city had been reduced from some 600,000 to only 80,000 people. I saw no children at all during those two weeks and few women. No school was open. Many of the men present were Hispanics doing the dirtiest work. Residents were at least able to move elsewhere while the city was rebuilt.

If most people are left on these Caribbean islands, their civility will be tested to the extreme. Power grids need to rebuilt entirely, and then water and sewage lines may need to be completely overhauled. The help must be massive and long-term.

Modern civilization is highly complex, efficient in many ways, but increasingly vulnerable to disruption. As British historian Timothy Gordon Ash put it in the wake of Katrina, “Katrina’s big lesson is that the crust of civilisation on which we tread is always wafer thin. One tremor, and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

4 Comments

  1. S. Herb says

    Note that this doesn’t get any better after the heating and transport sectors have also been electrified. I have seen comparatively little discussion in Germany regarding microgrids, perhaps because one is so used here to reliable electricity. As I see it, large scale (national and continental) electricity transfer is a crucial element in building an economical renewable energy system. There must also be enough local and regional generation and storage that if the long distance supply disappears each region can retreat into a degraded or survival mode for quite some time (or survive on modest imported current if the local capabilities are wiped out). This applies in a nested fashion, down to the neighborhood or household level. Over a period of a century or more, extreme events will happen, whether natural or man-made, and designing only for business as usual is not the way forward. One can also ask whether keeping some diesel generation and transport capabilities might be advisable, and whether underground hv transmission lines might indeed be worth the extra money.

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