In his 2005 book, Knowing Capitalism, Nigel Thrift coined the phrase “technological unconscious” to describe the infrastructure that underpins modern society and yet mostly goes unnoticed in everyday life. Electricity is a good example of this. Indeed, so inured to its presence have we become that it is often only the lack of it that brings it to our attention.Such lacks – in the form of sudden and disruptive blackouts – are the subject of a fascinating recent paper from Hugh Byrd and Steve Matthewman in the Journal of Urban Studies.1 The study examined 50 blackouts that have taken place around the world over the last decade and offers an insight into the “technology and sociology of power failure” – or, to put it another way, the causes and effects of blackouts. “Understanding the nature of blackouts is more than just a record of past failures,” write Byrd and Matthewman in their introduction. “Blackouts are a dress rehearsal for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity.” Indeed, their key message is that electricity supply will find it increasingly hard to keep up with demand that is undergoing staggering growth: in the latest World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA), global electricity demand is forecast to grow by 80% between 2012 and 2040. The consequences of a supply shortage are serious. As Byrd and Matthewman point out, loss of power affects almost all aspects of modern life: from our ability to withdraw cash from an ATM to keeping food fresh and getting to and from work safely. Blackouts wreak both economic and social havoc on the communities in which they occur.In addition to massive demand increase, electricity suppliers must also contend with a raft of other challenges: from the technical difficulties of getting power from where it is generated to where it is used, to political instability and interference, and – perhaps most pressingly – fuel scarcity. Indeed, the growing risk of blackouts should act as a serious counterargument to those that advocate the elimination of any fuel from the generation mix – let alone the fuel that is still the “backbone of electricity generation worldwide”, as Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director of the IEA, described coal in the IEA’s Medium-Term Coal Market Report 2014. But we also need to move beyond the traditional debate focused on this fuel or that fuel, climate change, plant efficiency and smart grids. There is something more fundamental at issue here – as fundamental as our primeval fear of the dark.We have become so used to banishing this dark with the flick of a switch, the idea that we might not be able to do so is almost unthinkable in the privileged West. Taking the debate into this strange territory, Byrd and Matthewson force us to ask essential questions of “what we want and what we need, balancing what is good for us with what is good for others”. It is a challenge. But we should be grateful for it.ReferenceBYRD, H., and MATTHEWMAN, S., “Exergy and the City: the Technology and Sociology of Power (Failure)”, Journal of Urban Technology, Vol. 21, No. 3 (2014), pp. 85 – 102.
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