September 4, 2014

IE Questions: Load Shedding And Keeping Your Lights On

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Photo entitled "load shedding hour" by Flickr user Deepak Adhikari

Flickr/Deepak Adhikari

Photo entitled "load shedding hour" by Flickr user Deepak Adhikari

Pakistanis don’t notice power outages.

That’s my theory, and it’s an absurd one. But let me explain.

I noticed it while traveling there during a journalism exchange program in 2012.

This exchange was more or less two weeks of back to back meetings with dignitaries, government officials and NGOs. And in our very first of these meetings, the power went out. Typical Americans, we looked dumb-struck. “Why are these lights not making light? The switch on the wall is flipped on.” There was a lot of uncertain shifting in our seats and looking at each other across the Islamabad conference room.

Yet, our presenter kept right on talking, unfazed.

After the lights came back on and he finished his talk, we asked him about his lack of concern. He didn’t even realize the power outage had happened. It wasn’t the last time we would experience this–in fact, by the end of our stay, we were blocking them out as well.

But, while individual power outages may be tolerated, Pakistan’s long history of widespread blackouts is one of the country’s biggest economic and political challenges. They impact entire cities and more on a very regular basis. Time magazine even listed blackouts as a bigger problem for Pakistan than the Taliban.

Load shedding is just another term for rolling blackouts. Utilities do this, intentionally, when they either have more demand for their power than they are able to supply or when their transmission infrastructure (power lines, etc.) is not up to the task of delivering the amount of power people need. In response, utilities ration power to different populations at different times so the whole system doesn’t go down. Ideally, it’s done as equitably as possible.

First world energy systems, like in the United States, don’t generally deal with load shedding enough to where it enters the public discourse. Utilities here are usually sophisticated enough to anticipate demand and to build in safeguards to prevent the need for such measures. That’s not to say it never happens in the US; a search of Inside Energy’s grid outages database shows that 134 of 1,652 events since 2000 involved load shedding – or nearly one in ten. Yet, it is rare, comparatively.

But, in some countries that many of us would think of as industrialized, load shedding is routine. A large South African utility, Eskom, announced major load shedding efforts within just the last couple of months, leaving people without power during their winter season.

The United States will probably not be looking at load shedding programs like this any time soon, but our research shows overall power outages are certainly on the rise.