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.
Photo: Graffiti on the facade of an electrical substation in Dresden, Germany. (2008). Johann H. Addicks. Via Wikimedia Commons.