Report: Electricity: How long could we survive without it?
Imagine life without electricity. Would you be able to get to work, cook, or heat your house? If you live in an urban area the answer is most likely no. Digitalisation is changing the way we live, with more automated and internet-connected devices than ever before, making the effects of power failure far greater. European cities are poorly prepared for power outages. The report “Electricity: how long could we survive without it?” explores how our cities would be affected by extended power outages and how vulnerability to power failures can be reduced.
Power outages occur for many reasons. Power lines can be brought down during storms or by heavy snow, falling trees or even bent branches. Power lines are also susceptible to extreme heat. Power plant operators present a human error risk, and ageing components in electricity infrastructure may also cause power outages. In the most severe cases, power plants may be affected by an accident or, for example, fire, where malfunction of a single piece of equipment may result in widespread disruption, potentially resulting in fuel shortages or a lack of other important resources. Climate change will likely result in more extreme weather, increasing the risk of power outages.
Power outages pose serious problems in terms of safety, domestic life, transportation, work, heating, nutrition, leisure and healthcare. European cities are dependent on electricity to function. How can we become less vulnerable to power failures and mitigate their effects on urban areas?
The consequences of power failure
Most urban citizens rely heavily on electricity in daily life. The pumps bringing water to apartments and houses are dependent on electricity. This means that the water would seize to flow in high-rise buildings in case of a power outage. On lower floors, water availability will worsen as water towers run out of water. Heating systems are also dependent on electricity, and so are fridges and freezers. In case of a power outage lighting, ventilation systems and other appliances used on a daily basis would also stop working.
There are important functions in our society that cannot function without electricity. One example is grocery stores. The most acute problems for stores of any size facing power cuts is related to cooling and heating of food products, and payment activities which are increasingly electronic. In the case of extended power cuts, problems will spread to storage management and ordering, and thereby supply chains. Hospitals are also dependant on electricity. In the absence of power, surgeries are at risk, respirators shut down, and hygiene is threatened. Waste management may also be affected if dependent on pressure piping, which requires electricity to function.
Production facilities, such as power stations producing electricity and heat, wastewater treatment plants and industrial plants face multiple challenges during power outages. Production losses can result in substantial financial costs, and pose a threat to safety. For example, production plants handling chemicals requiring high temperatures and pressures is an imminent threat to the environment and personal safety when power is lost as equipment fails.
Infrastructure would also be affected by power outages. Traffic control systems and fuel distribution networks would stop working. Water would flood the streets due to inefficient and completely missing pumping. Ploughing and cleaning of the roads would also be out of order, which would result in large scale problems during the winter time.
Electricity dependency – implications for urban planning
Digitalisation has changed our homes: we now have more automated devices than ever before; and many of them are connected to the Internet and may even have artificial intelligence to support functionality. Not only do designers need to consider how devices work, but also what happens if they malfunction. In terms of power outages, planned rundown or prepared malfunctioning are the most important from the safety perspective.
What happens with electrical locks for example? Locks may remain locked or unlocked in the event of a power cut. In the home, you do not want your front door to be unlocked, vulnerable to any passer-by, but at the same time, you want to be able to enter your property. Retail outlets and other business premises will also want to ensure that their properties are protected.
Holistic risk assessment is always needed when building industrial production plants. Risks change over time, which means that assessments must be updated during the life cycle of plants. Risk assessment consists of evaluating all critical functions and processes and proposing solutions to optimise safety.
The safety of automation is even more critical in industrial production plants than in smart buildings. Every part of the process should be designed such that in case of a malfunction, the production plant will run down safely or the process will stay in a safe, stable state. One example is the possibility to restrict the increase of pressure or heat. The plants can be prepared for electrical breaks with reserve power so that the critical process equipment has the energy needed for safe function.
The risk assessments are crucial. If the possible deviations haven’t been found or defined, the risk cannot be minimised.
Conclusions and recommendations
How can vulnerability to power failures be reduced; and the resilience of electrical systems in Europe be enhanced? When the power is gone, it´s gone. The preparation you could do is to have some canned food, water and a flashlight in storage. On a national level the key lies in technical safety and making power distribution networks more functional. Technical safety is not only related to power distribution networks and power plants; it requires a holistic approach encompassing the environment, cities and industry. For instance, technical safety should be taken into consideration when designing traffic control systems, electrical locks, building services, heating, cooling, water management and so on.
Technical safety incorporates two main aspects. First, in this case in power plants and energy distribution networks: what can be done to prevent emergency situations in the first place? Second: what can be done to minimise disruption to society when faced with a power outage? In an emergency situation, everything needs to be done to keep society safe; however, the ultimate aim should be to build resilient electrical systems for the long-term.
Extreme weather – the main cause of power outages – is set to influence grid infrastructure of the future to a far greater extent than is currently the case. Resilience and mitigation of climate change can be ensured, for example, with underground cabling and energy storage.
In addition, society must be prepared to alter production and consumption patterns with, for example, de-centralised production. A Centralised and decentralised production are necessary in terms of optimising distribution. With a decentralised approach, the loss of one production facility does not cripple an entire grid. However, with centralised production, large production facilities must be designed to be highly reliable with the help of advanced safety measures.
The number of production facilities connected to national power networks is increasing. This increases their vulnerability to cyber-attack. On national and local levels, every country should conduct risk assessments based on the security of supply, focusing on potential vulnerabilities, both physical and non-physical, of the energy supply and take action accordingly.
A life without electricity may feel distant for most inhabitants of European cities. But it is not as unlikely as one might believe, and when it happens we must be prepared. With just a few measures city planners can contribute to preventing power outages and mitigating the negative consequences.
Report: Electricity: How long could we survive without it?
About the authors
Erkki Härö is a power distribution specialist and electrification team leader at Sweco in Helsinki, Finland. He holds a D.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from Tampere University of Technology. Since joining Sweco in 2016, he has been working on industrial electrification projects and renewable energy. In his work on power distribution, Erkki is especially interested in planning a safe, functional and cost-efficient power distribution entity. Erkki’s projects involve feasibility studies, pre-engineering and detail engineering duties. His customers mostly comprise of production industry and renewable energy companies.
Sanna-Maria Järvensivu is Sweco’s technical safety expert, working on holistic safety management and risk assessments. She holds an M.Sc. in Automation Engineering and her career begun with functional safety in industry. Since joining Sweco in 2014, Sanna-Maria has focused on holistic safety management and understanding of technical safety from industry to urban environment in a wider perspective. Urban environment has become increasingly similar to industrial applications, as automation and digitalisation of the urban environment increases. Sanna-Maria also participates in international standardisation of technical safety and risk assessment and is developing practices to increase safety in the process industry.
Jussi Alilehto specialises in complex energy and HVAC-systems and their automation. He has been working with building service systems for nearly 20 years although his B.Eng. is in Media Engineering. His previous experience in building automation contracting has lead him to work on projects spanning conceptual design of urban area to fine tuning a heat pump setup. Jussi is a leading consultant in life cycle services, and he frequently emphasises the importance of attention to detail when creating safe, long-term solutions.
Pasi Haravuori is a senior advisor in electrification and automation at Sweco in Helsinki, Finland. Since joining Sweco in 2001, Pasi has worked on electrification projects in the process industry and distribution segments. Pasi is interested in how electricity distribution and safety systems can become a functional and natural part of the everyday life in industry and cities. Pasi holds an M.Sc. in Energy Technology and has broad experience of electrification and automation. Pasi is currently department manager for Sweco Industry, Finland. By working with new technology and smart innovation models, Sweco is planning better, smarter industry and cities of the future.