Blackout: Energy History Repeats Itself
by David Morris
Originally published on TomPaine.com, August 15, 2003
Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
On November 9, 1965 at little past 5 p.m., some 30 million people in eight Northeastern states and two Canadian provinces were plunged into darkness. Hundreds of thousands of people found themselves trapped on immobilized New York City subways or stuck in elevators. Automobiles slowed to a crawl when traffic lights stopped working. Millions of people remained without electricity for as long as 15 hours.
Initially, the possibility of sabotage was considered. Eventually it was determined the disturbance began because of a faulty setting of a relay and the resulting tripping of a heavily loaded transmission line feeding power into Toronto. The resulting surge of power from Canada into the United States overwhelmed transmission lines in western New York and resulted in the unprecedented widespread blackout.
The nation responded to the 1965 blackout by establishing the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) and investing significant resources to improve the oversight and control of our grid systems. Those investments were followed by rules that would encourage more and more electricity to travel further and further, stressing already stressed and complex grid systems.
But that didn’t stop more regional outrages. In August 1996, another multi-state blackout occurred in the Pacific Northwest. Then, a handful of electrical lines in southern Oregon sagged in the summer heat, initiating a chain reaction that cut power to more than four million people in nine states.
Today, as in 1965, federal officials are echoing the prescriptions of their predecessors. Yet there is an alternative: local power generation. Instead of spending billions to allow electricity to travel in ever-greater volumes over ever-longer distances, we should invest in installing millions of power plants in office buildings, apartments and factories all across America.
So far, the political response to 2003’s blackout has been predictable: fortify a system that’s likely to fail again.
President Bush, traveling in California, told the Associated Press, he “suspects the nation’s electrical grid will have to be modernized.” Meanwhile, the NERC, The Washington Post reported, wants up to $20 billion to build more high voltage transmission lines to strengthen the current system.
But electrical engineers will tell you that increasing the electrical interdependence of different parts of the country only increases the potential for large-scale power system failures.
Utility executive Gregory S. Vassell wrote in 1990, “The natural limitations in the spread of the 1965 disturbance, brought about by the tripping of the then weak transmission links between the Northeast and other areas, may or may not be operative in today’s circumstances. Thus, a major cascading power failure — once triggered in one part of the country — could spread to a much larger geographical area today than it did in 1965.”
However, unlike in 1965, the technology and economic incentives exist to make power generation more locally self-reliant.
We already have an industry that builds on-site power plants. Hospitals, for example, are required by law to have emergency backup systems. This week, they were oases of light and coolness in New York City. Hundreds of thousands of backup systems could be upgraded to become functioning parts of the local electricity grid.
Moreover, because of the increasing unreliability of the existing grid system, growing numbers of high-tech, information intensive businesses are installing their own power systems. This effort began in response to the feats of a ‘Y2K’ computer failure. These generators produce higher-priced electricity, but when the economic losses from a regional blackout can run into the millions of dollars, these businesses have seen such safeguards it as a worthwhile and even essential investment.
Fuel cells, rooftop solar devices, micro-generators are all available in growing quantities. Installing these devices not only makes the electricity grid more reliable, because it will reduce the stress on transmission lines. It can also make power systems more efficient. Today giant power plants waste two-thirds of the fuel they burn. It is given off as waste heat. But on-site power plants can use that waste heat, thereby doubling or even tripling the amount of useful work we generate per unit of energy consumed.
The technology is here. But the political will and regulatory structure is not. Today the rules encourage long-distance transmission of electricity and the construction of large power plants. The varying energy bills recently passed in the Senate and House look to further pre-empt the authority of local and state governments to involve themselves in electricity planning. The result will be an even more centralized and long-loop system.
We need to adopt a bottom-up approach. We need to establish rules that will channel entrepreneurial energy, investment capital and scientific genius toward building a two-way electricity system, one in which millions of households and businesses become producers as well as consumers. We need to develop the rules that will enable and encourage a distributed, decentralized, democratic electricity system.
David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org) and author of Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System.