Planned Power Outages

by jkaufman jefftk1mo12th Oct 20191 min read17 comments

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With the dubiously motivated PG&E blackouts in California there are many stories about how lack of power is a serious problem, especially for people with medical dependencies on electricity. Examples they give include people who:

  • Have severe sleep apnea, and can't safely sleep without a CPAP.

  • Sleep on a mattress that needs continous electricity to prevent it from deflating.

  • Need to keep their insulin refrigerated.

  • Use a medicine delivery system that requires electricity every four hours to operate.

This outage was dangerous for them and others, but it also seems like a big problem that they're in a position where they need absolutely reliable grid power. Even without politically motivated outages, the grid isn't built to a standard of complete reliabilty.

There's an awkward valley between "reasonably reliable, but with a major outage every few years in a storm or something" and "completely reliable, and you can trust your life on it" where the system is reliable enough that we stop thinking of it as something that might go away but it's not so reliable that we should.

We can't get California out of this valley by investing to the point that there won't be outages; earthquakes, if nothing else, ensure that. So instead we should plan for outages, and make outages frequent enough that this planning will actually happen. Specifically:

  • Insurance should cover backup power supplies for medical equipment, and they should be issued by default.

  • When there hasn't been an outage in ~1y, there should be a test outage to uncover unknown dependencies.

While this outage was probably not done for good reasons, the problems it has uncovered are ones we need to fix.

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