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Page added on October 1, 2017

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Puerto Rico: When the electricity stops

Consumption

When the electricity stops in modern civilization, pretty much everything else stops. Not even gasoline-powered vehicles can get far before they are obliged to seek a fill-up—which they cannot get because gas pumps rely on electricity to operate.

When I wrote “The storms are only going to get worse” three weeks ago, I thought the world would have to wait quite a while for a storm more devastating than hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But instead, Hurricane Maria followed right after them and shut down electricity on the entire island of Puerto Rico except for those buildings with on-site generators.

Another casualty was drinking water because, of course, in almost every location, it must be moved using pumps powered by electricity. In addition, the reason we remain uncertain of the full scope of the damage and danger on the island is that the communications system (powered by electricity, of course) failed almost completely.

The Associated Press reported that as of September 30, 10 days after Maria’s landfall, about 30 percent of telecommunications had been restored, 60 percent of the gas stations were able to dispense fuel and half of the supermarkets were open.

Presumably, these figures represent mostly urban areas where any single act of repair can restore services to many more people than in the countryside where conditions by all accounts remain desperate.

Unless power is restored soon to those areas still without it, many of life’s daily necessities—food, water, medicine—will remain beyond reach for substantial portions of Puerto Rico’s residents. The consequences of this are both predictable and dire. But the expectations are that weeks and months may pass before electricity again reaches the entire island.

If that turns out to be the case, then those who are able will simply leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, most probably to the U.S. mainland—something they are entitled to do as American citizens. The United States is unprepared for such a massive wave of migration if it develops.

Electricity is the essential pillar upon which the operations of all modern industrial societies depend. And yet, it is something that remains impossible to stockpile in large amounts; nearly all electricity is consumed as it is produced. Its transmission remains all too vulnerable to bad weather which we now know is only going to get worse—not only hurricanes but also ice and snow storms which will increase in frequency and severity as the atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor (because warmer air can hold more moisture).

Part of the question the United States and the world will be answering when deciding on how and what to rebuild in Puerto Rico is how much are we willing to spend on making infrastructure climate-change proof when climate change is a moving target. We do not now know how “hard” we will have to make any rebuilt infrastructure in Puerto Rico because we do not know for certain the ultimate severity of climate change through the lifetime of the infrastructure being built. It would be foolish to rebuild infrastructure that will simply blow down or flood out in the next major hurricane or one just 10 years from now.

While contemplating such dangers, the world remains largely oblivious to an unparalleled danger to the electric grid, one that dwarfs what climate change is ever likely to threaten: electromagnetic pulse or EMP.

Two sources of EMP, a coronal mass ejection from the Sun and the detonation of a nuclear bomb at high altitude are real threats. What makes North Korea such a menace is not the few nuclear weapons which the country apparently has, but the possibility that it could detonate one at high altitude and thereby cripple much of the electrical infrastructure of the country targeted. (Whether it has a weapon of sufficient power and the ability to deliver it high into the atmosphere above the United States or another country is unknown. Not surprisingly, the nuclear facilities of the U.S. military have been hardened against such an attack so as to assure a retaliatory capability in the event of a first strike.)

The possibility of a coronal mass ejection of sufficient power to cripple the world’s electrical system, however, is not theoretical. Just such an event, known as the Carrington Event, took place in 1859. Back then it dazzled viewers of the sky worldwide while burning up telegraph lines. Today, it would shut down much if not most of the globe’s electrical infrastructure.

What Hurricane Maria has done to Puerto Rico reminds us of how vulnerable systems critical to the daily operation of industrial society remain. We have options: one is a more decentralized, renewable energy system hardened against EMP. But we do not yet have the foresight and the will to realize such a system anytime soon.

Resource Insights by Kurt Cobb



34 Comments on "Puerto Rico: When the electricity stops"

  1. rockman on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 11:46 am 

    Howdy Kurt, it’s your old friend who had Don explain 3d seismic to you years ago. I almost didn’t read your piece since I starting to ignore PR relief stories. I take meds to control my blood pressure but I’m not sure they can control its ramping up from the anger/frustration over the pathetic response of the federal govt. Which is only being made worse by President Trump’s pissing contest with some PR politicians. As far as I’m concerned the govt response barely reaches the level of some poor sh*t hole 3rd world country.

    I wonder if the very limited response of our military is simply that it’s actually doing all it can because its logistics capabilities have been so taxed by our various military adventures around the world? That and spending 100’s of $billions on new fight jets doesn’t solve the problem of having so many heavy lift aircraft sitting idle because we lack enough mechanics to keep them operational. Or that we have many Navy vessels “cold stacked” since the Army and Marine budgets had to be given priority.

    The sad truth may be that the feds are doing all they can and don’t want to admit it by asking other countries to help.

  2. wildbourgman on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 1:00 pm 

    Maybe the people of countries with 20 trillion in debt and profligate spending problems get the emergency response to these things that they deserve. Someone had to have voted for these folks.

  3. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 1:37 pm 

    narrativemen seems to have trouble expressing himself on any topic outside his narrow oily API\Heartland talking points. I *think* the narravtiveman is upset at either the uS war-machine not having ‘enough’ resources(to do what exactly he does not make clear). OR he’s possibly upset at the figurehead trump, and some other figurehead uS politicians as well?

    As near as I can tell, narrativeman seems to feel the role of the uS war-machine, is to be on standby to save the uS from natural disasters. Dont you have a ‘civilian’ agency for that (FEMA)? Why does the number of military cargo planes sitting around and mothballed navy war-ships figure into anything. In empire it seems, everything has to have a ‘military’ solution, right narravtiveman? But if your military cant win wars, why anyone would expect them to do any better at disaster relief like MARIA, where what limited training and ability and competence the uS farces do possess, is of almost zero value.

    Remember narrativeman, the uS armed faces CREATE disasters, they don’t provide relief from them. Like wildb above points out, the uS has both the military(lol), and the disaster relief is deserves.

  4. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 1:52 pm 

    All of that “powered by electricity’ infrastructure requires the burning of fossil fuels to be repaired, and the places that were fortunate enough to have fossil fuelled powered generators and a supply of fossil fuels to run them on, were the only places that were still doing OK.

    There’s a lesson to be learned here, it just seems to be a tad too evasive, for many to comprehend………

  5. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 1:57 pm 

    All that is required, is for those electric powered C-130 transport craft, and electric powered freighters, to deliver electricity to the island, and everyone will live happily ever after.

  6. Anonymouse1 on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 2:31 pm 

    The larger issue will also go unreported and unmentioned Greg. The story is being framed as one of no power, no lights etc. The proximate cause. THe people on that island are not just dependant on that missing energy, but they are dependent on everything else as well-everything. They must not grow food, or have reliable sources of water in Puerto Rico if you listen to the ‘officials’ anyhow. What I see on the news is a people completely unable to support themselves if cut off from the ‘modern’ world, even for the shortest of times. They have no way to feed themselves, or provide for basic needs outside the amerikan industrial JIT economy model. I see lots of pallets of nestle bottled water* being handed out on the ‘news'( disaster capitalism anyone?), but zero discussion of people managing to cope and exist using largely, local resources. None at all.

    I don’t blame the people of P. Rico for this. The corn fed retards in, say, texASS were no better prepared either. Their main response was to sandbag their 4000 sq foot homes and call wall-mart to ask what their hours would be during the hurricane.

    * I think it would make interesting story on where nestle bottled water is actually made, where it comes from, who profits from it, and how much energy is expended shipping such a toxic item to the island. As opposed to having local reliable, public sources of water that can be accessed in emergency, or non-emergency situations even. If Nestle Corp is part of your disaster relief plan, you have a much bigger problem than no cell phone service or lights.

  7. wildbourgman on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 2:45 pm 

    Ok Anymouse I’m not sure what you think you can tell from a couple of sentences but ok. I actually wholeheartedly agree with you thoughts in response to Greg, but no matter where the problem is when I see people screaming for government like all resources and wealth are infinite it makes me wonder if they pay attention.

    If we had saved for a rainy day maybe then having people clamoring for use of the rainy day fund would be more palatable for me.

  8. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 4:50 pm 

    “What I see on the news is a people completely unable to support themselves if cut off from the ‘modern’ world, even for the shortest of times. They have no way to feed themselves, or provide for basic needs outside the amerikan industrial JIT economy model.”

    Absolutely agree. I was merely trying to make a point in regards to electric power generation being completely reliant on fossil fuels.

    As I have been saying for quite some time, those who are most reliant on a JIT delivery system for the basic necessities of life, will be the ones who suffer the most when it no longer functions to full capacity. Those who are already living off of the land, (poor dirt farmers) will hardly notice any difference. The JIT delivery system is complex and could go down in a moment’s notice. All that it would take would be a loss of confidence in an economic model that is already completely mired in un-repayable debt, and for all intents and purposes, is already insolvent. How long it can go on is anybody’s guess, but it will not go on forever.

  9. onlooker on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 5:01 pm 

    Yes, to the comments above. It is sad to see people so helpless. But this is where we are in rich countries dependent on a System that is fast beginning to falter. But many poor people around the world are also living on the edge because they have been forcefully displaced from farming and from their land. They now live in cities which though not as affluent as rich world cities are also reliant on that same electric grid and supply chain. How much can you blame regular people and not see that the powers that be found it in their interests to build such a technological energy dependent world. And now all of us humans are going to pay the price.

  10. Davy on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 5:55 pm 

    Mouse, are you a Puerto Rico expert? So you are saying other than the urban dwellers these people are completely unsustainable? Have you ever been to the island and done an in-depth tour? Did you know there was significant Eco farming and permaculture efforts there? There is fishing resources also. You argument is only partially valid for the urban dwellers but that is not the whole Island. This was a devastating Hurricane for this Island. A direct hit with a cat 4. I wonder how your Vancouver Island would do after a Tsunami and earthquake. I wonder how that Canadian JIT economy model would hold up. What about the corn fed retards there? Would they do better than Texas? I doubt it. Texas has a can do attitude not a blame and complain one.

    http://tinyurl.com/yau95lgk
    Agriculture
    Land in agriculture: 51.9%
    Agricultural population density: 713 persons per sq km
    Total agricultural workers: 36,000
    Agricultural workers: 3% of work-force
    Agricultural products:
    Sugar ……………………….. 1,261,000 metric tons
    Fruits ……………………….. 249,000 metric tons
    Plantains ……………………….. 80,000 metric tons
    Bananas ……………………….. 65,000 metric tons
    Vegetables ……………………….. 45,000 metric tons
    Oranges ……………………….. 25,000 metric tons
    Coffee ……………………….. 15,000 metric tons
    Yams ……………………….. 12,000 metric tons
    Papayas ……………………….. 4,000 metric tons
    Cassavas ……………………….. 2,000 metric tons
    Lemons and Limes ………………….. 2,000 metric tons
    Cereal ……………………….. 1,000 metric tons
    Rice ……………………….. 1,000 metric tons
    Animals:
    Chickens ……………………….. 10,000,000
    Cattle ……………………….. 592,000
    Pigs ……………………….. 195,000
    Horses ……………………….. 22,000
    Goats ……………………….. 14,000
    Sheep ……………………….. 7,000
    Mules ……………………….. 3,000
    Asses ……………………….. 2,000
    Animal products:
    Total Meat ……………………….. 86,000 metric tons
    Poultry ……………………….. 40,000 metric tons
    Beef ……………………….. 23,000 metric tons
    Pig Meat ……………………….. 22,000 metric tons
    Dairy Products:
    Cow Milk ……………………….. 348,000 metric tons
    Miscellaneous products:
    Eggs ……………………….. 15,550 metric tons
    Fish Catches ……………………….. 1,200 metric tons
    Honey ……………………….. 90 metric tons

  11. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 6:08 pm 

    “I wonder how your Vancouver Island would do after a Tsunami and earthquake. I wonder how that Canadian JIT economy model would hold up.”

    I thought Anonymous lived in Ontario? And what does a Tsunami and Earthquake on Vancouver Island, have to do with Puerto Rico, Houston Texas, and hurricanes?
    A collapse in JIT delivery systems, applies to anywhere that has JIT delivery systems.

    WTF Davy?

  12. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 6:13 pm 

    I might add Davy, if 3% of the population works in agriculture, does that not mean that 97% do not. Kind of like the rest of the US, and Canada. Who are completely reliant on a JIT delivery system from the 3%, to the 97%.

  13. energy investor on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 6:16 pm 

    There have always been disastrous hurricanes in the West Indies. Why do we have this endless narrative about how unusual they are.

    Why is the ignorant POTUS getting into Twitter about it? Just get on and do the repairs and stop the belly-aching. That is what FEMA is for.

    For the location of infrastructure, just don’t build within 10 metres above the level of the highest astronomical tide. The sea level has been rising for centuries and that isn’t likely to stop.

    There has been an earthquake in Mexico City and more than 5,000 tremors since, but does the threat of further earthquakes mean Mexico City should not rebuild?

    About the only thing that has changed in the last two centuries is that the human population has risen seven fold (1bn in 1810 to 7.5bn today) and we seem to believe it is OK to build on the sea shore and on flood plains. Now we blame climate change.

    Go figure

  14. Davy on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 6:19 pm 

    “I thought Anonymous lived in Ontario?”
    Ape man pegged him as an Island boy. This was about a year ago when Ape chastised him for his goofy anti-Semetic obsessions. Goggle the comment if you have time or better yet ask ape himself.

    “And what does a Tsunami and Earthquake on Vancouver Island, have to do with Puerto Rico, Houston Texas, and hurricanes?”

    AAH, last I checked they all represent disasters and this is from mouse1 himself:

    “The proximate cause. THe people on that island are not just dependant on that missing energy, but they are dependent on everything else as well-everything. They must not grow food, or have reliable sources of water in Puerto Rico if you listen to the ‘officials’ anyhow. What I see on the news is a people completely unable to support themselves if cut off from the ‘modern’ world, even for the shortest of times. They have no way to feed themselves, or provide for basic needs outside the amerikan industrial JIT economy model.”

    “A collapse in JIT delivery systems, applies to anywhere that has JIT delivery systems.”
    Well, your friend mouse1 thinks it is different for Canadians. It is just Americans in Texas and Pueto Rico who are helpless. You know this does not happen to Canadians per mouse1.

    “WTF”
    WHAT THE FUCK, I guess you are having problems following his line of thinking I mean it is so natural to think that way for you guys.

  15. Davy on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 6:27 pm 

    “does that not mean that 97% do not.”

    Does that not mean that some of that 97% might have gardens and other sources of food? This is the Caribbean where food grows easily because of the climate. The urban areas are likely not very engaged in AG but the surrounding areas are. There has been a big increase in permaculture farming there recently. Of course this is all moot because the place took a direct hit from a CAT 4 hurricane.

  16. Boat on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 6:28 pm 

    greggiet,

    As usual, Canadians miss the big picture. How many deaths during and since the storms? The obvious results of the JIT systems are outstanding. The power of first world tech-driven systems at work.

  17. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 7:23 pm 

    “Well, your friend mouse1 thinks it is different for Canadians. It is just Americans in Texas and Pueto Rico who are helpless. You know this does not happen to Canadians per mouse1.”

    For starters, mouse isn’t my friend. I’ve never met him, and apparently don’t even know where he lives.

    Where did he mention anything about things being different for Canadians? I believe he mentioned the American industrial JIT delivery model, no? That would be the same model as what exists in Canada.

  18. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 7:35 pm 

    Boat,

    FYI, there are over 35 million people living in Canada. In case you are having problems with that, 1 million is a bigger number than you could possibly count to in your entire lifetime.

    Obviously, the JIT delivery systems did not fail, now did they? If they had of, millions of people would be hungry right now, and eventually many of them would die.

    As per usual, you aren’t making any sense Boat.

  19. davy on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 7:37 pm 

    Read his comment again and maybe you will feel the . burn. Better yet, mouse1 explain yourself. Were you being anti-American in your above Purerto Rico rant? Your neighbor wants to know.

  20. davy on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 7:44 pm 

    Can’t you count to 1 million?

    Boat makes more sense than mouse 1

  21. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 7:46 pm 

    He isn’t your neighbour Davy, or mine. And Davy, why do you get so sensitive about someone else comments? It isn’t like it has any bearing whatsoever on your life. You yourself have called West Coast Canadians pretty much every name in the book. Big deal.

  22. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 7:48 pm 

    “Can’t you count to 1 million?”

    Can you? You might want to think about that one for a minute.

  23. davy on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 8:01 pm 

    Yeap, you felt the burn

  24. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 8:14 pm 

    Couldn’t care less. No bearing on my life what-so-ever.

  25. makati1 on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 8:25 pm 

    Davy likes to think he is upsetting everyone by his putdowns and snide remarks. It hasn’t sunk in that his opinions are meaningless to anyone but himself. His arrogant need to dominate is obvious. Another sign of his delusional mental state.

  26. JuanP on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 9:27 pm 

    The data posted by Davy is from 1989 and not useful today. The article makes some irrelevant points? EMPs?

    Puerto Rico’s population is more than 93% urban. The island only experiences two types of natural disasters, hurricanes and droughts. In rural areas 20% of homes have never been electrified. The island’s mean elevation is over 200 meters and most of it will never flood. Even San Juan has high enough areas that they will not flood in at least a century. It should be possible to build a network of hurricane proof buildings outside floodplains. All hospitals and most public buildings should be like that by definition.

    Based on the destruction I’ve witnessed in local farms and food gardens here in Miami where we only experienced Cat 1 hurricane force winds for a couple of hours and my recollection of the damage done by Hurricane Andrew in the rural areas of Miami in 1992, I would expect most fruits and vegetables in Puerto Rico to have been lost. Even food growers in PR will need help feeding themselves in the coming months and years. Clearing the debris and fallen trees will probably take years. Most fruit trees on the island were probably lost and it will probably take at least a decade before fruit production is back to normal.

    If I was living in PR now I would try to leave ASAP. PR has a very low fertility of 1.2 and more deaths than births. And two people leave the island for everyone born. The population there has been declining for years and this catastrophe will very likely accelerate this process. Puerto Rico is brutally overpopulated with the same population as Uruguay in a country 18 times smaller. Rebuilding PR as it was makes no sense at all.

  27. GregT on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 10:23 pm 

    Thanks for the info JuanP.

    Sad to hear that so many peoples’ lives have been devastated by this tragedy.

  28. Alice friedemann on Sun, 1st Oct 2017 10:56 pm 

    Several scientists have written me that this appears to be testing my hypothesis of “when trucks stop running”. I’d argue that diesel is at least as important as electricity, if not more do. The aid is sitting in San Juan unable to move because of lack of diesel for the trucks. People can last a lot longer without electricity than they can food…

  29. Go Speed Racer on Mon, 2nd Oct 2017 2:32 am 

    Over the weekend, Prez Trump declared war
    on Puerto Rico.

    He didn’t realize it was part of the USA.

    The bombers were recalled just in time.

  30. Davy on Mon, 2nd Oct 2017 5:47 am 

    “The data posted by Davy is from 1989 and not useful today.”

    Juan misses my point and that point is the Island is growing food despite mouse1 assertion they can’t grow food and are complete dependent on outside industrial AG. So if the data was 1989 I expect the latest data pre Maria to be even better because a lot of money has been poured into PR since 1989 and permaculture was catching on in PR since 1989.

  31. Davy on Mon, 2nd Oct 2017 5:51 am 

    “The aid is sitting in San Juan unable to move because of lack of diesel for the trucks”
    Alice, I think the transport infrastructure is worse than the diesel situation. The military is down there and they have plenty of diesel. I am fully behind your when the trucks stop people starve point but in this case they do not have roads and bridges. Trees are down everywhere. They still have generators running so you know there is diesel on the Island.

  32. wildbourgman on Mon, 2nd Oct 2017 3:55 pm 

    Like others have alluded to this is not only a problem Puerto Rico could have. Many places that have grown accustomed to necessities that are well beyond finding food, water and shelter without needing many other resources.

    I think the long article from Gail the Actuary pointed out some of these flaws in our existence.

  33. JamesTipper on Wed, 4th Oct 2017 2:09 pm 

    We really don’t know what collapse is, this is a severe problem. Imagine if Puerto Rico collapsed and no one could help them. Imagine if they had no resources to rebuild. What would happen? Riots and first, war at second.

    This is the U.S. in the future. Just a generalized collapse. I doubt it will happen instantly but it will be total and complete. Complicated systems are now trending towards zero.

    Even the Soviets didn’t have it. They broke into their various prior nation states and kept chugging along. Oil was still there, trade now opened up, resources could be exchanged. And even that in many ways was a monumental failure. But the people who made it up were more robust, more prepared, less industrial, had public transportation, and survived by the skin of their teeth.

    The Americans are bigger. I should know, I am one. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. The collapse of the Soviet Union was like jumping off a three story building on the roof. America will be like jumping off a fifty story building.

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