Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Peak Oil Crisis: Load shedding

by Tom Whipple

Fall Church News-Press (March 27 2008)

Largely unnoticed in America are the increasingly frequent electricity shortages developing around the world.

Many of these are caused by shifting weather patterns that are leaving hydro-electric dams with insufficient water to produce at full capacity. While some aspects of global climate change are temporary, many, such as the melting of glaciers, seem destined to last for decades, or perhaps centuries, thereby depriving the world of some of the best sources of cheap, renewable electric energy.

Thermal power production across the globe is struggling to cope with high prices and shortages of coal, fuel oil and diesel. Several poorer countries have shut down the bulk of their generation capacity as they are no longer able to pay the fuel bills to keep going.

Then there is the inexorable growth of the world's population - 77 million more of us each year. While not all the new born get instant access to the wondrous benefits of electric power, enough do to keep demand rising and rising. Of yet more significance is the rapid economic growth of China, the subcontinent, oil exporting states and lots of other places. With new-found wealth comes the demand for more and more electricity for lights, appliances, heating, cooling and a myriad of power-consuming devices that we in America and the other OECD countries adopted decades ago. There simply is not enough investment in new plants and distribution networks to keep up with surging demand.

A few places in the world have active insurgencies. Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria immediately come to mind, for insurgents just love to blow up their local electric power infrastructure. There are very few things an insurgent can do that will get everybody mad at the government quicker than shutting off the power.

Energy shortages are now so frequent across the world there is a new web site,, devoted to keeping track of them all. There are currently 96 different places in the world that have reported some form of energy shortages in recent months. These range from large areas of China, through the sub continent to small South Pacific islands such as Saipan and the Marianas that have not been heard from much since World War II.

Nearly every government in the world has announced plans for more electricity production. Most would like nuclear power plants that would, in theory, free them from the vagaries of hydro power and the steadily increasing prices of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, most of these plans have no foundation in reality, for unless the country is a wealthy one, the rapidly increasing prices of major projects such as oil refineries and power plants, particularly of the nuclear variety, are going to become prohibitively costly very soon. As for nuclear power stations, it is almost certain those few countries that have the capability to design and build them are going to be preoccupied for decades with building them for their domestic market or the ultra-rich oil exporters.

In addition to the many hardships that billions of people around the world are going to be facing in the next few years as load shedding (rolling blackouts) of lengthening duration become more common, are the numerous repercussions of this phenomenon in the developed counties where the lights are likely to stay on for a while longer.

Political instability is going to be at the head of the problem list. Despite the $5 billion the US has spent to improve Iraq's electric supply in recent years, a combination of increasing demand, insurgent attacks and regional hoarding has reduced the electric supply in Baghdad to a few hours a day. In Pakistan, where power shortages have already shut down seventy percent of the textile factories, recent reporting suggests the availability of electric power will continue to decline.

For many decades now, hundreds of millions of people have been moving from rural areas into megacities where tens of millions have collected in hopes of a better life. Keeping such massive collections of humanity functioning takes at last a modicum of electricity for the logistics of daily life. Megacities will soon be sorely tested.

A recent study points out that shortages of electricity are "dramatically" curbing world metal production. Aluminum, which requires massive amounts of electricity to produce, is at the top of the list with the likelihood that world production will be cut by 800,000 tons this year. South Africa, which produces much of the world's precious metal supply, is facing many years of power shortages and has already lost considerable production. There is more than speculation behind the recent run-up in commodity prices.

Another phenomenon that should concern us here in the richer countries is the rush to backup power as more and more of the world's power grids are subjected to "rolling blackouts". Even the poorest countries now have "modern sectors" of varying sizes where administrative and financial work is carried out in office buildings with computers. For these organizations, reliable electricity is essential. Small, produce-it-yourself electricity generators are appearing around the world by the millions - wherever they can be afforded.

In China and other better-off countries, no self-respecting factory would be without the capability of generating its own electricity should there be blackouts on the national grids. In some parts of the world, the din of these machines has become part of the background of life.

Besides the increasing noise and air pollution, the downside is that many of these are diesel powered, and there is a developing global shortage of diesel fuel. Generation of electric power with small internal combustion engines is expensive and highly inefficient. Until the fuel becomes too expensive or is no longer available, small generators are going to become increasing prevalent and will add significant new pressures on the world's supply of liquid fuels.

Bill Totten


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