It took just one worker in Yuma, Arizona to plunge millions of people into the dark in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, a few weeks back. A fluke, perhaps, but not a rarity.
If anything, major power outages are becoming an increasingly serious problem and at precisely the worst time possible – at least if you're an advocate of electric propulsion. Utility officials concede that it will be increasingly difficult to win over potential battery-car customers if they can't be certain of a steady supply of electric power.
Yet, that's precisely what American consumers are facing. In the Detroit suburbs, two months back, a heat wave popped the circuits at a number of sub-stations around the city. It plunged much of my own little community of Pleasant Ridge into the dark for as much as three days. We were lucky. The hurricane and tropical storms that struck the East Coast, from the Carolinas to Maine, just days later, cut power to millions more utility customers, some for weeks.
Okay, we can grudgingly accept that natural disasters can only be suffered through. But the increasingly rickety American power grid seems to short out for all sorts of reasons. In Texas, a sudden lull at a wind farm isn't properly managed and much of the state temporarily blacks out. In Detroit, an aging transformer shorts out. And then, in Yuma, we have a solitary workman, struggling to replace a worn capacitor, triggering a series of rolling blackouts in Arizona, Southern California, and Northern Mexico, San Diego's power going down entirely for awhile.
"It's not getting better," John Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the public interest research group ProPublica, in a July interview. "It's getting worse."
Indeed, research by the University of Minnesota finds that the number of major power outages has doubled during the last decade – and as FERC's chairman suggested, there's little reason to believe that will get better any time soon.
Yet the grid is being asked to take on a new load, the Obama Administration aiming to drive more than a million plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric vehicles onto U.S. roads by mid-decade. At anywhere from three kilowatts to as much as 75, the chargers used for vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt or the upcoming Tesla Model S will dwarf the power consumption of even the most energy-hungry home of today. That battery car is very likely to suck down more power than all your plasma TVs, 1000-watt audio systems, desktop computers and air conditioning systems combined.
Officials from both the utility and automotive industries insist that consumers are likely to charge up their vehicles overnight, when demand on the grid is lightest – and rates are lowest – for those using special time-dependent circuits. Initial evidence doesn't necessarily support that. If anything, it appears battery car owners are more likely than not to plug in whenever they have a chance.
"I don't want to wait til morning to have my car charged up," says a close friend – himself in the auto industry, hence his request not to be named – "I want my car ready to go at any moment."
Imagine hearing the warning sirens for a tornado or hurricane and finding your car is stuck in the driveway, the battery on "E."
But even if lower rates do encourage a large proportion – even a majority – of battery car owners to time their charging cycles for off-peak that doesn't do much if your neighborhood is blacked out.
"It's a definite problem," said a spokesman for DTE Energy, the utility for my Detroit suburb, after our mid-summer blackout. "We've been targeting that neighborhood as likely to have a lot of early adapters," but at least one of just my immediate neighbors has decided not to buy a Chevy Volt after seeing his power go off – again.
Many times we don't even realize how often the grid goes down. After installing a natural gas generator at my home in July 2009 I counted at least 13 blackouts – some lasting just minutes – during the next six months.
The White House is trying to ensure there's a ready, steady supply of electricity to feed all those hungry battery cars. It has allocated $11 billion in stimulus funding – much of it to create a so-called smart grid. New technology should make it easier for utilities to monitor supply and demand and respond to potential problems. New meters going into suburban Detroit in the coming months will automatically report blackouts and, one would hope, speed up repairs.
Such technology, experts suggest, could have helped prevent the blackout triggered by that worker in Arizona.
But the process of updating a grid that, in some communities, pre-dates the Great Depression's New Deal won't come quickly. Barely 15% of the Administration's stimulus funds have so far been spent.
Meanwhile, some skeptics fret that new federal rules aimed at reducing power plant emissions could only complicate the current situation – a charge the EPA strongly denies.
The U.S. is by no means alone. Countries from Korea to Germany are discovering the cracks in their own grids. And then there's Japan. The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11 crippled one of the country's biggest nuclear plants and with the Fukushima Daichi plant down the nation has been struggling ever since with a severe energy shortage. That has led hotels to shut off air conditioning, dimmed the lights on the Ginza and even forced shifts in production schedules at automotive assembly plants.
If there's any good news it's that the ramp up of sales for battery cars – whether plug-ins or pure battery-electric vehicles – will likely start slowly. Sales of Volt, Leaf and all other models combined at running only a few thousand a month. But proponents believe that will grow exponentially – and so will the risk that such products will strain the grid – and that frustrated buyers will turn against the technology when the power once again goes out.