1. Is it all Going to Turn Off?
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The darkened skyline of a major metropolis may be an eerily peaceful sight, but it is never a comforting one. It almost certainly portends tragedy, as it did when lower Manhattan went dark on account of Superstorm Sandy slamming into the seaboard last year.
Yes, many were without "Homeland" and their Twitter feed for what must have felt like an eternity, but hospitals running out of backup generators and a city with a lack of general structure have a way of compounding into, well, total disorder.
That's also supposed to be the premise of J.J. Abram's show, "Revolution," on NBC. The intro tells of a post-apocalyptic America in which the power inexplicably went out in a worldwide blackout. The pilot includes the main character proclaiming that, "It's all going to turn off, and it will never ever turn back on!"
Why not? If Abrams' "Lost" is any guide, we may never know. In the meantime, of course, anarchy ensues, as the world is a completely different place without power. Major outages such as the 2003 Northeast blackout might make us wonder if someday we'll all be yelling that "It's never going to come back on!" Considering we're an increasingly wired society, is a total blackout even possible?
The thought of losing every watt of our electricity is certainly an alarming one considering how dependent on energy we have become in nearly all facets of life. In addition to mundane yet essential uses of electricity such as streetlights and transportation, more than 9 in 10 Americans depend on it to use cellphones, and according to a recent study by Time magazine, 74 percent of Americans responded that they could not go more than a day without their mobile device. What would we do with all the missed status updates?
All these devices need to get their juice somewhere, and they are adding on to our country's ever-increasing thirst for power.
Electricity is often measured in kilowatt-hours, or kwh. It means what you might imagine. If you were to take a standard 60-watt light bulb and let it run for 1,000 hours, it would consume 60 kilowatt-hours of energy.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA, Americans' total electricity consumption in 2011 was a whopping 3,856 billion kilowatt-hours, a 13-fold increase from the pre-iPad days of 1950, when just 8 million U.S. homes had TVs. To be fair, only about 1,427 billion of those hours in 2011 came from residential consumption with powered air conditioning, refrigerators and the cumulative 250 billion hours of TV we now watch annually.
3. Zap in the Wallet
If the electrical apocalypse struck tomorrow, leaving us in a complete blackout, you might miss all of your favorite shows and general order in society, but think of the savings on those nonexistent power bills.
The EIA says the average national price paid by Americans for their residential electricity in 2011 was 11.8 cents per kwh, up significantly from the 1990 inflation-adjusted average of 10.5 cents, but also down from the equivalent of 14 cents in 1960, illustrating just how much the cost of electricity fluctuates with demand and efficiency.
What's certain over time is that electricity supplied to residences is the most expensive, on account of the added cost and distribution to every home in the country, in addition to varying regulations by location.
Though primary factors such as weather can affect the cost of electricity production by the minute, consumers typically pay a higher general rate during the summer months. They can also pay significantly more if they are farther away from a power plant. This includes places such as Hawaii, which paid the highest average rate in 2011 at 33.2 cents per kwh.
So this summer when you're roasting at home because the air won't get cool enough and you're worried about the power going out for good, you can finally be grateful you don't live in a tropical paradise.
4. Grid to a stop?
So are we really teetering on the precipice of a nationwide collapse of our electrical grid, trying in vain like Ralphie's old man to haphazardly plug in our hypothetical leg lamp without blowing the whole thing into a total blackout?
Though usage varies on region and season, the country's grid has an operating capacity of 1,051,251 megawatt-hours, of which we used only about 39 percent in 2011, according to Glenn McGrath, PE, an Energy Information Administration electric power systems and reliability team lead. So we may not be pushing our limits, but that doesn't mean we can carry on as is for the coming decades and not expect J.J. Abrams to look like a soothsayer.
"The grid is in great need of additional investment in stability and versatility, but especially the latter," says Tom Konrad, blogger for Forbes and editor of AltEnergyStocks.com.
As the nation inevitably moves toward an electrical grid with more diverse and sustainable sources, Konrad warns that it won't be as easy as flipping a switch.
"Renewable energy can help and hinder grid stability," he says. "The problem is that our current incentive structure rewards kilowatt-hour output above all else. The grid will become smarter and more interconnected, but probably not as quickly as we need it to."
In other words, don't post all of those emergency generators on Craigslist just yet.
5. Is total blackout possible?
For most Americans, the thought of a massive blackout makes for prime-time TV and not much else. Then a freak storm hits, leaving millions of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut residents without power for weeks.
"The most likely disaster is always the one we're not expecting," Konrad says. "I can't say what will happen, but I know we'll be surprised."
At least not to the point of complete national failure, thanks to our national electrical grid being divided into three independent sections -- eastern, western and Texas -- that can disconnect from one another at the first sign of significant trouble.
"In the U.S., we have built-in protections," says Saifur Rahman, professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "It's almost theoretically impossible to have all three grids go down, unless one goes down for technical reasons and another area has lightning strikes, which is an act of God, but can happen on paper. It's extremely unlikely."
Rahman added that tragedies such as Superstorm Sandy present a bit of a Catch-22 with our current system. Power lines above ground are susceptible to wind and falling branches, while underground lines can flood.
"It's a give and take with how much we value power for two days and how often disasters happen," Rahman says.
At least it will come back on.