No Electricity, No Russians, No Story

San Francisco, noon, April 21, 2017. Traffic not moving, buildings dark. Similar things happening in New York and Los Angeles. Was it the Russians? No? Then forget about it.

Last Friday, the lights went out in New York. And San Francisco. And Los Angeles. Not all the lights, and not all day, but still. It’s only April, three months before the summer heat challenges the electric grid to within an inch of its life, as the summer does every year. Three serious outages in three major cities seems like grist for the cable news mill, wouldn’t you think, with talking heads wall to wall saying things like, “Well, I know nothing about it, and none of us will for days, but it could have been a Russian cyber attack.”

That happened, of course, but only on a handful of conspiracy-loving, fake-news-peddling, objectivity-challenged publications. Like the Washington Post and the New York Times. (Just kidding. They didn’t pay much attention to the story at all.) Let us look at what happened, as exactly as we can, and then consider how it was handled.

  • New York 0725 — The B line of the New York subway system lost all power for about five hours, screwing up the morning commutes of thousands of people. Delays and re-routings rippled outward from the 7th Avenue and 53rd Street station to affect much of the system for much of the day. Presumed cause — failure of a service line.
  • Los Angeles 0900 — power was lost to Los Angeles International Airport and several surrounding areas. Caused some consternation at the airport, otherwise minimal.
  • San Francisco, about the same time — a more serious and protracted outage that shut down traffic lights,  the rapid-transit system, and dozens of major office buildings for up to five hours. The cause — an overloaded circuit breaker that caught fire..

Some publications (for example, referred to these outages as “simultaneous.” We can’t tell whether they were hyping the story or simply didn’t know the meaning of the word “simultaneous.” In either case, the outages clearly were not simultaneous. A few other publications invoked the Russians, and cyber-attacks, without a shred of evidence that either was involved.  Responsible reporters quickly found out that a simple, unrelated mechanical failure was behind each of the outages, and they dropped the story.

But, see, that IS the story — the fact that pieces and parts are rotting and falling off our 100-year-old electric grid so often now, and have gone so long without any serious effort to maintain or repair it, that bigger and bigger chunks of the country are losing power more and more often. The United States has more power blackouts than any other industrialized country in the world. What demonstration of that little known fact could be more to the point than the loss of power in three of our largest cities in the same day? But in the absence of a Russian plot, it just wasn’t worth covering.

As it was not covered, so it is not being discussed, certainly not by politicians and their constituents (by which I mean their actual constituents, not their financial patrons). Among the things not discussed:

  • The major and increasing strains being exerted on the grid by climate change, both in terms of hotter summers and colder winters that increase the need for electrical energy for heating and cooling, and in terms of more numerous and savage storms that every few days tear out another stretch of wire.
  • The average age of the system’s large transformers (to pick just one component of the grid’s elderly infrastructure)  is now north of 40 years, well beyond their design life span. Ever more subject to failure, these monsters take up to two years to build, and nobody in this country builds them.

Computer cyber attacks, or electromagnetic pulses from enemy action or sun storm, are real and present dangers as well. But we don’t need to even go there to realize that we are about to see cheap and reliable electricity go the way of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels (when they go, which won’t be long). Do you suppose that will be a story on CNN?

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11 Responses to No Electricity, No Russians, No Story

  1. I believe I’ve said it before: you cover events no one else does, and well. Thank you.

  2. Ken Barrows says:

    No worries. Driverless cars will soon be followed by “energy less” cars and electricity free non-grids. And, as a fallback, blue cubes of energy (h/t The Onion).

  3. Tom says:

    I whole-heartedly second James’ statement.

    For a change, i’m not going to add anything, except to say “you’re on to something” Mr. Lewis!

  4. Kate says:

    We don’t need help from the Russians-we can destroy ourselves with no help from anyone else. USA! USA! We’re No. 1!

  5. Denis Frith says:

    This post touches on just one aspect of the failing of infrastrcture in the USA, the electricity supply. There is copious information (including that provided by the engineering academic bodies)about what is irrevocably happening to highways, bridges, ports etc. Ironically there does not seem to be consideration of what is happening to the vast number of pipelines even though they are aging and their failure will hit hard.

  6. I´m I wrong or the USA is falling to pieces while you spend trillions destroying other countries ? . Isn´t it a littlle mad ?

  7. Liz says:

    Civil Engineers’ association just gave America a “D” for infrastructure. Briefly mentioned in the news since editors remember the big yawn after the last round of stories on our “crumbling infrastructure.”

  8. Derek Finter says:

    Just tonight, Australian time, I finished re-reading “Tribulation”, even more impressed than the first time. Every day brings us closer to the reality of your story. Stay strong.