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Power blackouts in a connected world

Power | Balint Gyorvari on December 09, 2019

Power outages can strike at anytime. This November one coincided with the NFL halftime show during Thanksgiving, in Detroit. Needless to say, the brief power outage stole the headlines that day. By all accounts this was not seen as a major power outage. They can be much worse.

Over 1 million people across England and Wales were affected by the catastrophic power failure earlier this year, with transport services paralysed, traffic lights down and businesses plunged into chaos. Similarly, Manhattan went dark for 3 hours in July, affecting 73,000 people. Major power outages may be infrequent, but their effects are devastating in an increasingly interconnected world. What are the root causes behind such power failures? Can you trust that your building is resilient enough to weather such a storm?

This is not the first instance of power related issues. In May 2019, Virgin Mobile blamed power cuts for more than 10 hours of service disruption. A March 2018 power failure affecting a single London data centre knocked multiple cloud service providers and communications companies offline, causing havoc further down the line.

 

What causes power failures?

Electrical energy is delivered to the consumer in multiple layers — power generation, high voltage long distance transmission, medium voltage local distribution and low voltage delivery to consumers. Each layer contains potential points of failure that can affect the final consumers in the form of power outages.

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Every country and national energy distribution company has contingency plans and emergency power plants in place for these scenarios. However, as recently seen, while total power failures may be rare, they affect the widest audience and can cause country-level disruption.

 

What this means for people and business

Power outages have always cost businesses money, but today, the stakes are exponentially higher. The vast majority of today’s employees simply can’t work at all without power or internet. Businesses rely on an interconnected web of IT services, communications, digital products, and more — a power failure in one business affects many more.

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The more interconnected the business, the larger the losses. Based purely on lost revenue, a 2013 power outage cost Google over $100,000 per minute (Google.com, YouTube, Google Drive, and Gmail were down for 5 minutes at a cost of $545,000.)

Lost revenue is the consequence we can most easily quantify. More elusive, yet more crucial, is lost customer trust. Both business and residential consumers choose service providers based on their reliability. On a long enough timeline, service failure is inevitable. Minimisation of impacts and swift recovery increase customer trust and loyalty, while frequent, poorly handled service failures make frustrated customers look elsewhere.

 

What can you do as a landlord?

Looking at the most common causes of power outages, it’s clear that addressing the root causes is not an option for business and consumers. However, there are a range of options at the building level to mitigate power failure risk.

Multiple power feeds are highly effective for increasing resilience at the local distribution level, where damage from construction or roadworks is the most common cause of disruption. Backup generators and large-scale batteries can keep the lights on over longer duration. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) provide instantaneous (but short-duration) backup power as soon as the electricity goes down, indispensable for protecting equipment by safely shutting it down or bringing other power sources online.

By selecting and combining power resilience technologies, such as those above, buildings can mitigate the risks from several types of power failures, from sub-second disruptions to multiple day outages due to extreme weather events.

 

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