The United States is edging ever closer to the kind of power-grid failure that put 600 million Indians — ten per cent of the population of the planet — in the dark for two days this week. The reasons for the threat are the same here as they are there: one, no one is taking care of the grid — the network of transmission lines, interconnectors and transformers that is essential to life as we know it; two, supply cannot keep up with demand; and three, rate-setting is a political rather than an economic process. It should not come as a shock, so to speak, that neglect, failure to prepare and playing politics with essentials should lead to disaster.
The principal difference between the Indian and American cases is that India simply does not have enough fuel to generate the power it needs, and the US does. Thus a large part of the Indian power problem is that supply shortfalls caused by coal shortages cause constant brownouts and blackouts around the country. These did not cause the blackout, they are tools used by grid managers to keep the network balanced and are a normal part of life in electricity-starved places such as India, Iraq and Pakistan.
They are becoming more frequent in America, too, (they have become a regular summer event in New York City) not because we are short of fuel but because we need more generation capacity and none is being built.
Supply shortages cause inconvenience — loss of power or reduction in voltage for limited periods of time — but do not take down the grid. That requires an imbalance, a sudden shock that causes circuit breakers to trip all over the system. In the United States on June 29, a chunk of the eastern grid came down when three massive towers supporting a main transmission line in West Virginia blew down in a thunderstorm. (The winds were nowhere near the design capacity of the towers, they’re still trying to figure out what happened.)
As in India, warnings about the state of the US grid have been frequent and authoritative. (They are featured in a front-page story in the Washington Post — “Aging Power Grid on Overload” — this morning.) No less than the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a report released in April that the grid could break down by 2020 unless investment in it is increased immediately by about one billion dollars a year. Why so much? Because, according to the report, more than two-thirds of the system’s transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old, and 60 percent of the circuit breakers have been in use for more than 30 years.
Investment of the massive size required would require increased rates for electricity, and that simply is not going to happen in a political climate where people are not expected to have to pay for anything; not their government (no new taxes) not their wars (Iraq was “off the books”) and certainly not their electricity. Despite being deregulated like many other aspects of economic life pursuant to the Reagan Revolution, electric utilities who raise their rates soon find that deregulation does not extend that far. In Maryland, when it was revealed that moving to market rates would cause Baltimore Gas and Electric to increase rates by 72 per cent, that was the end of deregulation.
In this, as in so many other areas of public life, we are like the ass starving to death because he is equidistant from two bales of hay and can’t decide which way to go. We either have to spend tons of money propping up the old system, or expend tons of effort and thought coming up with a new one. By refusing to do either, we drift faster and faster toward the precipice over which India has just tipped.
[See also: Lights Out All Over the World]
Tags: electric grid, India blackout