NOTE: Every once in a while, I will write an RC letter that just doesn’t do the job it is supposed to do. This is one of those letters. The idea for this letter originated with the observation that most of the centralized, urban infrastructure we rely upon was built up incrementally over decades. It’s old, and it spread the investment required to build it over a very, very long time.
Fortunately, our experience shows that old infrastructure like this is workable as long as we have the money and the political will to constantly patch it. However, if the political will fails or the money dries up, the old centralized infrastructure will break so completely that repair/patches won’t work anymore (as we saw recently in Port-au-Prince, Haiti due to political neglect). The only option at that point is to install a resilient, on site infrastructure (energy, sanitation, etc.) since the costs of a full rebuild is impossibly expensive.
Long term electricity shortages are usually only seen in war zones, disaster zones, or extremely poor countries. It’s not something we expect to see in the US or the EU, particularly since ubiquitous, always on electricity is synonymous with modernity. Regardless, given the way things are headed, it’s likely our future.
The future I anticipate is based on the pragmatic assumption that the hard times ahead of us are what they’ve always been across history — i.e. economic depression, political upheaval, bankruptcy, rampant criminality, and warfare — and not a complete collapse of civilization — i.e. a Zombie Apocalypse.
So, given historical precedent, there is every reason to believe we will see routine electricity shortages materialize as our economies deteriorate. Based on past experience, here’s what we should expect:
- Nothing new will be built. We are just realizing we are bankrupt. Our collective wealth has been squandered and stolen, never to be seen again. This means the investment dollars available for improvements and expansion of the electricity grid don’t exist. What does get funded, gets stopped by a justified NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) movement. So, even if there were a plentiful, sustainable, and inexpensive new supply of centralized electricity production available, it’s very likely it would never reach the customers that would use it.
- The grid will fall into disrepair and become intermittently available. As we become poorer, funding for the maintenance of the national grid will evaporate. As a result, we will see more breakdowns. Further, we will see sources of centralized electricity supply become intermittent, as suppliers go offline due to sagging demand or government attempts to regulate prices in a fragile economy.
- The grid will be intentionally broken. As our economies fall deeper into depression, our political and social systems will follow them into the abyss. Attacks on the grid infrastructure will become more frequent as criminals strip lines of precious metals and domestic guerrillas attack the lines cause disruption.
This is obviously a degraded future for those reliant on the current system. An ongoing loss of electricity makes everything harder. It adds friction to nearly everything you do.
In contrast, for those of us building resilient communities that produce most of what we need locally, the onset of routine blackouts will be of minor consequence to our daily lives.
Your always pragmatic but optimistic about our future analyst,