Bring Power to the People
by David Morris
Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 25, 2003
On Nov. 9, 1965, at a little past 5 p.m., some 30 million people in eight Northeastern states and two Canadian provinces were plunged into darkness. Millions of people remained without electricity for as long as 15 hours.
The nation responded to this unprecedented catastrophe by establishing the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) to oversee the reliability of the nation’s transmission system and investing significant resources to guarantee that such regional blackouts would not recur.
But the blackouts continued — in New York City in 1977, in nine Pacific Northwest states in 1996, in eastern Canada and the United States in 1998 — and now, on Aug. 14, 2003.
In each case federal officials and utility engineers responded by proposing the same remedy: an even more extensive high-voltage transmission system. Just hours after the most recent blackout, NERC requested an additional $20 billion to shore up the transmission lines.
The effectiveness of these investments, however, has been undermined by changes in federal electricity rules. In 1992, Congress deregulated the wholesale electricity system. Suddenly a transmission system that was built primarily to deliver electricity from a utility’s power plants to its own local customers was ordered to become a bulk transmission system, carrying electricity 1,000 miles or more among independently owned power plants and distant customers. The volume of long-distance bulk transmission has increased some 400 percent in the last 15 years.
Thus the tens of billions of dollars the president and NERC and many others want to invest in the transmission system are intended not to make the current system more reliable but to refashion the electricity infrastructure to allow it to serve a different purpose.
There may be a short-term economic benefit in doing this. For part of the year, customers could be served by less expensive electricity imported from halfway across the country. But the breadth and complexity of the system also increases the potential for disaster.
As one 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.”
The 50 million Americans and Canadians affected by this blackout can testify to the accuracy of Vassell’s prediction.
Instead of pursuing strategies that have failed in the past, government at every level should embrace an alternative: local power generation.
Rather than spending tens of billions of dollars to allow electricity to travel in ever-greater volumes over ever-longer distances, we should invest that money to install millions of power plants in office buildings, apartment houses, factories and households across America.
Hundreds of thousands of on-site power plants are already in place. Hospitals, for example, are required to have emergency backup systems. In New York City, hundreds of hospitals became oases of light and coolness. Backup systems could be upgraded to become functioning parts of the local electricity grid.
The increasing unreliability and fluctuations of the existing grid system has led growing numbers of high-tech, information-intensive businesses to install their own power systems. When the economic losses from a regional blackout can run into the millions of dollars per hour, businesses have come to view such investments as worthwhile and even essential.
Installing on-site generations like fuel cells, wind turbines, rooftop solar electric devices and micro-generators not only reduces the stress on transmission lines, it also makes the overall electricity system more efficient.
Today’s giant power plants waste two-thirds of the fuel they burn. It is given off as heat, and because of the amount generated and the distance to potential customers, it is never harnessed. Power plants inside or next to buildings, on the other hand, can use that waste heat, thereby doubling or even tripling the amount of useful work we generate per unit of energy consumed.
Instead of spending tens of billions of dollars to expand the transportation of electricity we should spend that money to expand the distributed generation of electricity. The technology to accomplish this is here. But to make this transition we need to develop rules that would decentralize rather than centralize electricity generation and delivery. The political will to move in this direction is lacking, in both Washington and St. Paul.
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 enable and encourage a distributed, decentralized, democratic electricity system. Only then will we avoid a repetition of this summer’s disaster.
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.