August 1, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Failing Global Power Grid


As of early August 2012, the massive power outage in India that left an estimated 620 million people (twice the population of the United States) without electricity is a concrete indicator of the troubling fragility of the infrastructure that exists within many of the largest countries, many of whom also face persistent social and political issues that leave them exceedingly vulnerable to instability. This fragility, which spans the globe, poses a question that will confront policymakers both in the near- and long-term: what happens to global prospects for sociopolitical stability and sustainable economic growth when the lights keep going out?

As detailed in our July 6th IntelBrief  (National Resilience: Only as Strong as the Weakest Link), the United States is not exempt from this question (nor, for that matter, are other developed nations in the West and elsewhere). However, the consequences of an infrastructure that is unable to meet the growing needs of populations demanding the benefits of modern technologies — or the growing needs of companies to sell these technologies — is of particular importance when one looks at the list of the most populous countries and the percentages of their populations without reliable access to electrical power.

        China: 1.3 billion, 99.3% with electricity         India: 1.2 billion, 400 million without electricity         The United States: 313 million, 100% with electricity         Indonesia: 248 million, 80 million without electricity         Brazil: 192 million, 4.3 million without electricity         Pakistan: 180 million, 70 million without electricity         Bangladesh: 167 million, 92 million without electricity         Nigeria: 166 million, 100 million without electricity

While countries that are widely viewed as stable, such as the United States and China, are technically capable of providing electrical power to essentially all of their citizens (albeit with serious shortfalls at times), the story is dramatically different in other countries on the list.  Some of the most unstable countries on earth, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, are on the list, as are countries that are relatively stable yet face persistent domestic tensions, such as Indonesia and Brazil. Due to the seemingly irreversible trend toward mass urbanization of the global population (more people now live in cities or towns than in small villages or the countryside), the effects of power outages will become more and more severe as daily life increasingly calls for electricity that will simply not be available.

Additionally, countries such as Kenya, Congo, and Ethiopia have smaller overall populations but a larger percentage — often a majority — of their populations without access to electricity, which again is a growing problem as these countries become more urban and their populations require ever more power. If the past decades bore witness, in some measure, to the benefits of technology in improving lives in economically emerging countries, then the next decades might bear witness to what happens when those countries confront infrastructure deficiencies that render useless or even counterproductive much of those same technologies.

Pakistan is a textbook example of a country with highly modern technologies (it is, after all, a member of a very small group of countries in the world that possess a viable nuclear weapons capability), yet muddles through with an infrastructure that was obsolete decades ago, leaving it even more unstable than its complicated internal ethnic and political tensions would create alone. As noted above, 70 million of Pakistan's 180 million people do not have access to electricity, but this number is misleadingly optimistic in that the people who have access to the power grid face the daily reality of multiple brownouts (up to 20 hours without power in certain areas in recent years). While there might not be an established causal link between inadequate, inconsistent electrical power and violent extremism, it certainly creates friction between a growing and disappointed population and the government that appears to fail it multiple times each day. Pakistanis most certainly do not need another reason to either dislike or distrust their government, and yet every time the air conditioning goes out in summer heat, the distance between the people and their supposed leaders expands. As a measure to placate the people's poverty and anger, Pakistan, like many other countries on the above list, provides highly subsidized cheap electricity, a tactic that ironically encourages waste and excessive consumption and therefore all but guarantees more outages.

Nigeria is another example of a rapidly urbanizing country with an almost inconceivable array of serious domestic problems —  economic, political, and security — that are aggravated by a lack of electricity. Violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram see their recruiting efforts enhanced when people in crowded environments such as those found in Abuja and Lagos are without electricity. While generators might have been sufficient in the smaller villages, the power loads of tenements and apartments in these ever larger cities require voltage that can only be provided by a stable and growing grid, something Nigeria and most of the aforementioned countries sorely lack. One of the consequences of having over 60% of the population without electricity in an era increasingly calling for more power is widespread lawlessness, as people devise their own ways to obtain utilities. Once again, this creates a lingering discord between the people and their government to such an extent that in cases like Nigeria and Pakistan, the current government is totally incapable of solving the problem even if it were to make a serious effort to do so.

To be clear, this immediate and enduring problem of failing electrical infrastructure is nearly without precedent for several factors. As a consequence of the information era, the younger generations are the first to come of age in a dramatically more urbanized planet in which globalization has made the production and, more importantly, the consumption of electrical goods and services a commanding part of the global economic engine. Of equal importance, life in cities inherently means that uninterrupted electricity is a vital necessity and not merely something to aspire to at some point in the future. As a result, demand will most assuredly outpace supply in the decades ahead. Finally, instability often breeds more instability, and a country that cannot keep the lights on will rapidly deteriorate in cascading fashion, causing more lights to go out not only there, but also soon in neighboring countries as well.

Policymakers might be well-served by viewing the recent power outage in Indian as the canary in the coal mine, offering the warning that some of the most populous countries are on unsustainable paths.

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