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Are We Facing a Worldwide Electrical Crisis?

YOWUSA.COM, 09-November-03
Steve Russell

Worldwide Electrical Grid

Can You Make Candles?It rapidly became obvious this year that the very backbone of our 21st century society is being disgracefully managed and in many cases beginning to crumble.  I am not talking oil or share markets but electricity, the only single invention from which every other piece of technology that we depend on has its roots.  Take away this network and we are literally plunged back into the dark ages.  You should be concerned to learn that governments are gambling with this grid for profit, and they have slaughtered it to the point of degradation that we are now experiencing and paying for from our wallets and quality of life.

Worldwide Issues

The first signs of a worldwide electrical grid crisis came from the leader of Russia's Unity fraction in the State Duma this year.

Pravda, 17 January, 2003
80% of Russian Electricity Grid in Poor State of Repair

Pekhtin believes that the government and the State Duma are dallying over new laws to reform the electricity sector and other utilities. 'It is clear that these sectors require urgent reforms.  Between 60% and 80% of electricity generation facilities and supply grids are in poor condition,' Pekhtin stressed.

Next, the United States was once again in the mood for breaking records.

CNN, 16 August, 2003
Power returns to most areas hit by blackout

Within three minutes, starting at 4:10 p.m. Thursday, 21 power plants in the United States shut down, according to Genscape, which monitors power transmissions.

The outage also shut down cellular telephone service in many areas.  High demand caused busy signals for some users.  Others lost service because there was no power to supply cell sites, which house the antennas that transmit calls.

The power outage has cost New York City over a half-billion dollars in lost revenue, according to preliminary estimates from the City Council.

Chris Policano, a council spokesman, estimated losses of $500 million to $750 million in lost income; $35 million to $40 million in lost tax revenue; and $6.5 million in overtime costs to emergency crews and other city workers.

Just when the world thought the worst was over and had dismissed the US experience as freakish, Denmark and Sweden decided to continue the trend.

Washington Post, 23, September, 2003
Millions Without Power in Denmark, Sweden

A power outage struck the capital of Denmark and southern Sweden on Tuesday afternoon, leaving nearly 4 million people without electricity, authorities said.

Utility officials said the outage, caused by a faulty transmission line between the two countries, was being repaired and most customers would likely have power restored before nightfall.

Spinning back around the globe again, a Czech Republic blackout affected 60,000 people.

ABC News Online, 8 October, 2003
Major power failure blacks out Czech Republic

Tens of thousands of people were left without electricity in a major power failure in western parts of the Czech Republic on Monday night, a spokesman for the local supplier ZSE says.

The blackout brought down the hydraulic power plant at Korlovy Vary, a town with 60,000 inhabitants.

Mr. Kucera says it cut the electricity supply to Ostrov , Nejdek, Rotava and all the smaller towns in between.

Only days later in the Southern Hemisphere and feeling left out, Western Australia joined the growing trend.

The West Australian, 11 October, 2003
Power station crash hits 125,000

THE parlous state of WA's electricity supply was highlighted again yesterday when the Collie power station crashed, cutting power to 125,000 homes and businesses in the metropolitan area and key regional centres.

The State Opposition said the shutdown raised more questions about Western Power's announcement on Monday that it may defer plans for another major generator in the South-West.

Yesterday's breakdown came just two months after Western Power warned of rolling blackouts after the crash of one of its key coal-fired generators and a two -week maintenance shutdown on the Dampier-Bunbury gas pipeline, which feeds many of its other stations.

"It emphasises how delicate the provision of electricity supplies are and how it needs to be very carefully managed. There will be a loss of that ability if the Government goes down the path it is planning to."

As expected, the media was quick to point out that blackouts occur all the time around the world; They have completely ignored the bigger picture of impending disaster, and simply ran with a few entertaining headlines.  They ignored the fact that blackouts have never occurred at this frequency or severity.

There is a growing chorus of industry and security experts, but their voices seem to be falling on deaf ears.  Unfortunately, governments and media do not normally address these types of issues until they have become serious enough to warrant catchy headlines, causing the general population to learn the awful truth.  The dramatic US blackout seemed prime to spark such awareness, but sadly, even this event was not big enough to generate such debates.  Perhaps this is because there were not enough deaths.

So, are the causes of these blackouts more sinister than a simple barbecued squirrel in a substation?  Let's have a closer look at the US for an example of the potentially dangerous path the rest of the world is traveling on.

What Went Wrong

The two key conflicting issues with the US power grid are:

  1. The physical enormity of its structure
  2. The insatiable desire of money hungry companies to glean as much profit from it as possible.

The Industrial Physicist
What's wrong with the electric grid?

To avoid future incidents, the nation must either physically transform the system to accommodate the new rules, or change the rules to better mesh with the power grid's physical behavior.

In the view of Casazza and many other experts, the key error in the new rules was to view electricity as a commodity rather than as an essential service. Commodities can be shipped from point A through line B to point C, but power shifts affect the entire singlemachine system.

The new structure has since turned previously smaller, safe, local monopolies into dangerous profiteering rivals.  There are many detrimental effects stemming from this that cannot be rectified until the politics governing them change.

Problem #1 - Grid enhancements are being done at the cheapest cost to the company instead of being done for the benefit of the grid system as a whole. 

The Industrial Physicist
What's wrong with the electric grid?

The problems would be compounded, engineers warned, as independent power producers added new generating units at essentially random locations determined by low labor costs, lax local regulations, or tax incentives.

Problem #2 - Policies and procedures are being implemented to deliberately impede competitors and the consumers who rely on them.

The Industrial Physicist
What's wrong with the electric grid?

Power Transmission LineAt the same time, data needed to predict and react to system stress—such as basic information on the quantity of energy flows—began disappearing, treated by utilities as competitive information and kept secret. "Starting in 1998, the utilities stopped reporting on blackout statistics as well," says Ben Carreras of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, so system reliability could no longer be accurately assessed.

Problem #3 - The grid is being unnecessarily pushed to its limits to actually create blackouts for competing customers.

The Industrial Physicist
What's wrong with the electric grid?

"Under the new system, the financial incentive was to run things up to the limit of capacity," explains Carreras. In fact, energy companies did more: they gamed the system.  Federal investigations later showed that employees of Enron and other energy traders "knowingly and intentionally" filed transmission schedules designed to block competitors' access to the grid and to drive up prices by creating artificial shortages. In California, this behavior resulted in widespread blackouts, the doubling and tripling of retail rates, and eventual costs to ratepayers and taxpayers of more than $30 billion.

Problem #4 - When profits dry up, company personnel are the first casualties.

The Industrial Physicist
What's wrong with the electric grid?

As their credit ratings and stock prices fell, utility companies began to cut personnel, training, maintenance, and research. Nationwide, 150,000 utility jobs evaporated.

The government has failed to realize that electricity is an essential commodity for our modern day survival and quality of life. It is far too critical to be gambled with by companies more interested in making a dollar at our expense.

If the examples above of the current decision-making problems are not enough to make you squirm, there is always the lack of public maturity and responsibility displayed by these companies and commissions when something goes wrong.

Blame Game

Power LinesAfter the recent large-scale European outage, the name-calling and finger pointing began between Italy and Switzerland

CNN, 29 September, 2003
Deregulation to blame for blackouts?

The European Commission had already warned Rome to invest more in its power transmission grid and new power stations - calling Italy one of the weakest links in the complicated trans-European power network.

SwissInfo, 27 October, 2003
Blame on Swiss

An international report has laid the blame for last month's major power cut in Italy on Switzerland.

Etrans has dismissed the findings as one-sided and instead blamed the Italian authorities for the blackout.

The Europeans were only following the lead of the Americans and Canadians who were locked in a battle for blame only weeks before.

CNN, 15 August, 2003
Canada and U.S. blame each other

Canadian officials insisted a massive power cut across the northeast United States and parts of Canada originated in America - but U.S. power workers blamed Canada.

There is lots of name-calling, bitterness and focus on laying blame for incidents, but no overall responsibility or admittance declared over the poor state of the networks and quality of supply in general.  Until now... maybe.

Bush To Fix?

As with all things political, nothing usually gets done until either a celebrity gets killed, or the number of public deaths makes up for their lack of popularity.

Fortunately, there was no major loss of life in the recent US outage, yet to my surprise, Bush announced that something needs to be done.

CNN, 15 August, 2003
Bush: Blackout is ‘wake-up' call

Bush, taking questions from reporters while visiting the Santa Monica Mountains north of Los Angeles, described the delivery system as "old and antiquated".

"This is an indication that we need to modernize the electricity grid," said Bush, who repeated his call for lawmakers to pass a broad energy bill.

While his statements were "should fix" and far from "will fix," maybe the government will surprise us this time and take action towards improving the electricity grid on which our very lives depend.  Don't put any money on the table just yet, though.