great welcome dear friends of protection, control and electrical engineering. What actually happens in a blackout and is that even possible in Germany? In his book “Blackout” Marc Elsberg showed us a terrifyingly realistic scenario. A large-scale and long-lasting power outage would have relevant consequences for our society. Let's look at the definition, likelihood, and most importantly, the actual effects of a blackout and start with the actual definition.
What is a blackout?
It's clear. Blackout means power failure. But when do we start talking about a “real blackout?” Not every small power failure deserves this big Anglo-Saxon word. Even if it sounds unbelievable, there is no official definition. A power failure is initially a power failure.
The spatial extent and the number of people affected by the power failure could serve as a demarcation between smaller local power failures and actual blackouts. The following table shows the 6 biggest blackouts in the last 20 years.
In a study by the German Bundestag, the authors also divide blackouts into 4 different time phases / 2 /.
🌐 Phase I for power outages from 0 to 2 hours
🌐 Phase II for power outages from 2 to 8 hours
🌐 Phase III for power outages from 8 to 24 hours
🌐 Phase IV for power outages over 24 hours
This delimitation is also expedient. It is clear that the spatial extent and duration of a power failure are the decisive parameters for the intensity of the effects. We should therefore roughly agree that a blackout means many people affected with a possibly unfavorably long power failure. Before we look at possible black-out scenarios, we want to know:
"How likely is a blackout in Germany?"
Blackout probability Germany
The reliability of the power supply in the Federal Republic of Germany is very good. Despite the enormous growth in renewable producers, no statistical negative effect on security of supply has yet been demonstrated. The "System Avarage Interruption Duration Index" reflects the average supply interruption per connected end consumer within a calendar year. The following figure shows the years 2014 to 2018 (source: Federal Network Agency).
For comparison: Switzerland was around 14 minutes / 3 / and Austria 25 minutes / 4 / in 2018. Furthermore, one could also orientate oneself on the price, according to the motto:
"What costs more also means higher quality.“
In doing so, we should all remember the law of the economy. In this the English writer John Ruskin has manifested a timeless connection:
„There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person's lawful prey.
It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.
The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.“
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
A simple translation could be:
You get what you pay for.
In any case, we are world champions in Germany in terms of price. For households we are at 32 cents / kWh and thus lead the global table. For companies, we are also at the forefront with currently 19 cents / kWh, only Denmark and Cyprus beat us in a European comparison / 6 /.
Since nothing is true without its opposite, we should never forget:
“Even bad things don't have to be cheap”.
According to the energy-political target triangle, electrical energy should not only be environmentally friendly and reliable, but also economical.
Even if we are the front runners in terms of price and have not seen any abnormalities so far, the following facts are beyond question:
🌐 Generation and consumption must always be in harmony
🌐 Stable conventional generation is politically triggered and replaced by wind and photovoltaic generators that are currently without storage
🌐 Critical system interventions have increased in recent years (see e.g. here)
🌐 Cyber attacks have become a real threat
🌐 Complex IT structures offer greater potential for errors
🌐 Extreme weather conditions are increasing
🌐 Terrorist attacks must also be factored in on a permanent basis
In addition, the general question arises:
"Can the security of supply even make a statement about the blackout probability?“
Hardly likely. In general, the following applies: The probability of a Europe-wide power failure and thus an infrastructure failure, with all its consequences, cannot be calculated anyway, and neither should one try. Rather, a blackout is a black swan, a very rare but still real possible event and that is precisely what makes it so dangerous. A blackout is possible at any time and usually occurs when several harmless routine events come into play at the same time. Strictly speaking, we find ourselves in a security dilemma: Due to the high level of security of our energy system, we do not take adequate precautions for its failure. From this follows the dilemma:
"The more secure the system, the more vulnerable it is.“
Several studies and also the book by Marc Elsberg have impressively shown that our European societies are inadequately prepared or barely prepared for black swans. There should be agreement that a blackout scenario has to be dealt with over a longer period at the local level and “on the front line”. The considerations of possible effects in the next chapter will emphatically show how little we can rely on help from technical aid organization and the federal government in an emergency. There are reasons that the Federal Government publishes the “Guide to Emergency Preparedness and Correct Action in Emergency Situations” and recommends that every individual take precautions. In the current 7th edition from July 2019, it is explicitly advised to personalize the following items:
🌐 Water, 2 liters / person / day
🌐 Groceries and camping stoves
🌐 Important medication, pain relievers, first aid kit …
🌐 Hygiene articles e.g. Soap, toothbrush and very important toilet paper ;-)
🌐 Candles, matches, torches, spare batteries, fuels …
🌐 Crank radio
In the previously quoted paper of the German Bundestag it also says:
“The likelihood of a long-term power outage affecting the territory of several federal states may be low. If this were to happen, the consequences of this would amount to a national catastrophe. Even if all internal and external forces and resources were mobilized, this would not be »controllable«, if necessary mitigated /2/.
What happens in the event of a blackout in Germany?
First of all, it is the duration of the blackout which causes different situations. A short power failure lasting a few minutes will have little or no effect. In the following we dedicate ourselves to the "Big Black Swan", namely a nationwide blackout lasting several days and its consequences.
Breakdown of information technology and telecommunications
The study by the Bundestag comes to the result that in the event of a widespread power failure, the following systems fail after a short time:
🌐 Internet and
🌐 Radio reception
Since UPS (uninterruptible power supply) and EPG (emergency power generator) are sometimes exhausted after hours, but at the latest after a few days, a total failure of communication must be assumed within a very short time. Although there are system components that can be used for several days, all the systems mentioned have weak points. The weakest link then finally determines the functionality of the overall system and leads to its failure. In the Internet, for example, our electricity-based end devices and routers form the gap, although the Internet is operated via the well-secured long-distance transmission network. So we note: cell phone, phone, order pizza and Bundesliga (german soccer) are canceled.
Breakdown of transportation and traffic
The individual transport and the transport of goods experience significant restrictions and come to a standstill within a very short time. System-relevant electrical components are no longer available on the road, on the rails, in the water or in the air. It comes to:
🌐 Traffic jams in the cities
🌐 orphaned railways and trains
🌐 Truck traffic jams on highways
🌐 Cargo congestion in ports
This means that the population's supply and self-sufficiency also come to a standstill. There is no longer any fuel supply at filling stations. Food and essential medicines can no longer be distributed as needed. In addition, countless numbers of people have gotten stranded in elevators, subways, cars, trains and buses and have to be evacuated and taken care of. Only at airports is there likely to be a more regulated process for the time being, as these have appropriate emergency power supplies. Let's be clear: Neither we nor important goods and goods for our daily needs come from A to B.
Restrictions in the water supply
Our entire water infrastructure is dependent on the supply of electrical energy. The lack of drinking and extinguishing water would have catastrophic consequences. The establishment of mobile EPG, the use of emergency wells and the use of mobile ambulances can offer temporary solutions with a high level of personnel, time and organizational effort. However, the following situation prevails in the area and especially in metropolitan areas:
🌐 The drinking water supply comes to a complete standstill
🌐 Sewage systems and toilet flushes no longer work
Here lies the real Achilles heel of our society. While we can go several weeks without food, there are only a very few days without drinking water. Anyone who does not live here directly on the Mecklenburg Lake District or comparable oases has a problem.
Our previous isolated view of events obscures the actual interplay of things. The failure of telecommunications and traffic inevitably leads to the collapse of food production and the coordination of demand-oriented delivery of food. After just one or two days, it can be assumed that hardly any branches can be supplied.
Since the food supply is part of the state's duty to protect, it keeps the so-called “civil emergency reserve” ready. This reserve, consisting of grain and milk powder, can be further processed and distributed in emergencies if possible. In addition, the German stocks of the EU intervention reserve provide the opportunity to access grain, rice, olive oil, as well as milk and meat products. Nevertheless, the paper of the German Bundestag says:
“In spite of the greatest efforts, however, it is very likely that the nationwide and needs-based supply of food can only be insufficiently guaranteed. The main obstacles are likely to be the poorly networked actors and the non-existent means of communication ./2/ „
Since healthy people can get by without food for up to 3 weeks without any problems, sick people and small children are most at risk here.
The above-mentioned deficits in the areas of food, communication, water and transport services lead to a collapse in the quality of our medical care. After a week at the latest, damage to health and possibly death of people must be expected. The supply of:
🌐 Blood products
🌐 Sterile goods
🌐 fresh laundry
🌐 other important drugs
quickly becomes scarce and leads to a drastic worsening of the situation. A few hospitals that last longer become the main point of contact and are therefore also at the end of their capacity more quickly. Medical practices and pharmacies are also no longer able to function as required for the reasons mentioned above.
In the contribution of the German Bundestag it says:
“If you continue in your mind the developments and conditions that have come to light by the end of the first week at the latest, you can see that the central function of the health sector of providing people with the necessary medical services could hardly be guaranteed. The risks to life and limb would increase exponentially, so that the state as a whole can no longer meet its duty to protect. Medical and pharmaceutical care is no longer possible without the supply of medical goods, infrastructures and specialist personnel from outside. / 2 / „
We can be relatively brief here. Cash withdrawals no longer work and bank transfers are also no longer possible, and payment transactions come to a complete standstill. Cashless payments are also no longer possible. You only have as much cash as you had in your wallet or under your pillow when the blackout occurred.
Other effects such as drastic price increases, especially for food, violent conflicts, theft, break-ins, assaults and looting are also conceivable. In addition, there is hope that a large part of the population will show solidarity, join forces and support one another in such an emergency.
No electricity means:
🌐 no light
🌐 no heating
🌐 no cooling
🌐 no water
🌐 no food
🌐 no elevator
🌐 no escalator
🌐 no refueling facility
🌐 no checkout and payment systems
🌐 no cash issue
🌐 no transportation
🌐 no toilet flush (after pressure drop)
🌐 no cell phone network
🌐 no landline
🌐 no Internet
🌐 no quality care in hospitals
🌐 and more …
Let's hope that this Kafkaesque scenario of a blackout in Germany and Europe never happens. To meet a black swan, on the other hand, would be ok and also possible: they really exist!
/3/ Bericht „Stromversorgungsqualität“ der ElCom, Bern, Mai 2019
/5/ Sicherheitspolitische Jahresvorschau 2020, bundesheer.at