Brittle Power

As America plunged into the dark ages last week and millions of Americans went without electricity, the message was clear: the terrorists had struck. Except these terrorists weren’t your easy-to-target Allah lovers, they were the barons of fossil and nuclear power and their government cronies. Their weapon is an ancient electric grid that’s, in their own words, fit for ‘a third world country’. It’s an insanely fragile device that inefficiently sends electricity from polluting, centralised generating plants to buildings that waste massive amounts of energy and generate none. And it will crash, crash and crash until it’s replaced. -- SchNEWS

We have no clue. Our computer is giving us fits. We don't even know the status of some of the stuff around us. -- operator, FirstEnergy control room

We had an equipment failure in our system in south east London and that was followed in a matter of seconds by a second fault which caused the power cut. -- Mark Fairbairn, National Grid

The usual suspects — politicians, regulators, deregulators, utilities, and environmentalists — were promptly rounded up when the Aug. 14 blackout lost 61 billion watts of capacity in nine seconds. Yet the real culprit was none of the above ...The real cause is the overcentralized power grid. Its giant machines spin in exact synchrony across half a continent, co-ordinated by frail aerial arteries and continuous, precise technical controls. Usually, it works well. But every few years by mishap, or anytime by malice, it can fail catastrophically. -- Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute

Everyone is pulling power and there's lots of big stations on the grid. All you need is one tenuous problem and it cascades throughout. -- Bill Browning, Rocky Mountain Institute

The recent cascading power failures along the entire east coast of North America was a graphic illustration of the vulnerability and brittleness of hard energy supply paths. It was not due to a dilapidated grid, though that would not have helped. Nor was the problem new, as it has happened before.

When part of the system goes down, it puts extra load on other parts of the system, these become overloaded and go down, putting further overload on the remainder of the system, and thus the problem cascades until it takes out the entire network.

Once the system is down, it is not an easy matter to bring it back up. Loads and power generators have to be matched, hence the plea to everyone to switch off. There also has to be a matching of frequency and phase over the entire network, every generator in sync with every other generator. Not easy to achieve. Power stations when down rely on the grid to spin up their rotors. No grid? Many power cables are fluid cooled, and rely on pumps to maintain the pressure. No grid?

No surprise then that it took several days to get the system back up and running, and that it kept collapsing. At the height of the blackout more than 50 million people were left without power in eight US states and eastern Canada, including in major cities like New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto and Ottawa.

The US government used to take responsibility for ensuring that each area had enough spare capacity to act as a safeguard in times of difficulty. But, since the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s, the rules have been much less strict. Demand for electricity in the US has been growing steadily, alongside increased use of air conditioning and computers. But electricity firms have not been investing in building new high voltage distribution lines. US power demand has grown by 30% in the last decade, while transmission capacity has grown by just 15%.

The California-based Electric Power Research Institute, has calculated that if the US government does want to upgrade the grid, it will cost between $50bn and $100bn. If it is upgraded it will the public who will pay, not the electricity companies.

It can't happen here, was the smug reaction in the UK when the entire east coast of North America was blacked out in a cascading power failure. Before the month was out, London and a huge swathe of Kent and Sussex was blacked out, 400,000 customers lost power for on average half an hour. In London it was chaos as lifts and trains ground to a halt and traffic lights defaulted to red. The blackout caused rush-hour misery for 250,000 people when it stopped around 1,800 trains and closed 60% of the Tube network. The worst power blackout in over ten years.

The cause was two near-simultaneous failures on the grid. It did not cause the cascading blackouts as we saw in North America, but it should not have happened at all.

One simple fuse in a relay was all it took. The fuse should have been 5 amp, instead it was 1 amp. The fuse blew, and the rest is history.

One-off, unexpected and highly improbable minor faults have caused entire systems to collapse. But that is the whole point of resilient systems, they should be able to withstand unexpected, unpredictable failures.

For a system to be reliable it has to have built in redundancy. In an electric power supply system this means alternative switching and routing and spare generating capacity. In the broader sense alternative sources of supply and less reliance on electricity.

The regulator, Ofgem, has been a failure. Ofgem has concentrated on driving down generator price to the exclusion of all else. A policy that has not resulted in lower consumer prices (fat profits for distribution companies), but has removed all spare generating capacity from the system.

London Underground used to have its own generating capacity, last year it closed its last power station. The National Grid has lost 10% of its generating capacity in the last two years.

The power station that has been supplying London Underground for nearly 100 years was turned off October 2002 by Neo-Labour Transport Minister John Spellar. Seeboard Powerlink would now be in charge of operations and Spellar announced that this Private Finance Initiative scam was a 'good example of the public and private sectors working together to improve services for travellers in London.' 11 months later people found out just how much the service had improved. Thousands of people on the Underground were plunged into darkness for 40 minutes, traffic lights failed, trains ground to a halt, lights went out in buildings. All thanks to a lack of emergency back-up and what the Mayor of London and unions blamed on cost cutting by the private companies. Meanwhile, construction company Balfour Beatty and property company Circadian will be turning the site into a £500 million luxury flats development.

It will only take one sharp cold spell this coming winter to see rolling blackouts across the country, something we last saw in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.

This is not a problem that can be resolved by market forces. Many companies have mothballed their power plants, even efficient combined heat and power plant, because they cannot get a decent return on operating costs, let alone capital investment. A plant moth-balled for ten months will take a further ten months to get back on stream. Thus, even if prices were hiked tomorrow, we'd be lucky to get generating capacity in place for next winter, let alone this winter.

But why were we so complacent? Last winter saw power failures across East Anglia, which then took weeks to restore power. The weather was nowhere as severe as previous bad winters. The problem was deregulation, corporate greed, lack of regular maintenance and routine maintenance workers and insufficient engineers and equipment to get the system back up and running once it had gone down. Around 15,000 jobs have been axed from the electricity distribution network over the past five years. Engineers had to be drafted in from across the country and eventually brought over from France.

The problems of a complex system have been compounded by deregulation. In the UK the regulator has allowed generating capacity to deteriorate to the point of vulnerability. The deregulation regime in the US is far worse.

An unstable system needs tough regulation, recognized by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, but lacking in today's neo-liberal environment.

Franklin Roosevelt ensured energy prices were linked to actual costs, blackouts were penalised and all electricity companies were closely monitored by the federal power commission. Maybe even more important, FDR banned political contributions from utilities.

Then along came Daddy Bush, and in came deregulation. To show their gratitude, the power companies showered Bush Jnr with money to ensure his election.

One of these companies was FirstEnergy. FirstEnergy's President, Anthony Alexander, was a Bush Pioneer in 2000, meaning he raised at least $100,000 for Bush Jnr. He then went on to serve on the Energy Department transition team. Peter Burg, FirstEnergy CEO and chairman of the board, hosted a June 2003 event that raised more than half a million dollars for Bush-Cheney 2004 election campaign.

FirstEnergy is believed to be the cause of the August 2003 North America blackout. FirstEnergy's 550-megawatt, coal-fired Eastlake power plant in Ohio stopped running. In response, FirstEnergy began to pull roughly 20% of its load of electricity out of Michigan to meet its needs. This transfer overloaded several transmission lines, causing them to trip. Non-FirstEnergy plants in Ontario, Canada, began supplying energy to the underpowered Michigan market, which then led to overload on those transmission lines. This movement of power in Canada deprived New York of power it had relied on, which led to the blackouts there.

Condemned by members of Congress for its actions during the blackout, FirstEnergy is now under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

FirstEnergy may have triggered the crisis, but there is no talk of them paying the price, instead it will be the US taxpayer who will stump up the cash to pay to overhaul the transmission system, even though it will be companies like FirstEnergy who will benefit.

Although FirstEnergy are seen as the immediate villains, it is deregulation that is ultimately to blame. The US transmission system was never designed to shift large amounts of electricity across the continent, to satisfy the 'free market'. In the past the utilities were obliged to invest in the infrastructure, now they 'invest' in the purchase of overseas companies. US companies own British companies, French companies own British companies, the National Grid owns the New York system that went down. Money that should be ploughed back into the electricity system is going instead on building global companies.

Deregulation has been likened by investigative journalist Greg Palast to a 'committee of bank robbers figuring out how to make safecracking legal'.

Under GATS, as the utilities cast their predatory eye on Third World markets, it can only get worse. In Brazil, Houston Industries seized ownership of Rio de Janeiro's electric company. Bush's buddies fired workers, raised prices, cut maintenance. Blackouts occurred so often the locals called it Rio Dark.

energy supply costs

All energy supply systems have costs, if we mean by costs, environmental and social costs, not monetary costs, where money is merely a token to represent real cost, but no longer applicable due to distortions inflicted on the market by Big Business.

As a rough rule of thumb, costs are determined by size, the larger the scale the greater the cost, and the mismatch between supply and demand. The classic example would be a nuclear reactor with core plasma temperature equivalent to the heart of a star, supplying space heating via electricity to raise ambient temperature by a few degrees.

Large scale wind turbines are unsightly, noisy and dangerous to birdlife. Why despoil our few remaining wild spaces? The large amounts of capital required makes us dependent on Big Business.

We should tap into natural energy flows, divert a small amount for our needs, and allow the remainder to flow on past. The classic example would be the preindustrial miller diverting part of a stream. He has little impact on the ecosystem.

Our energy needs are low power and widely distributed. Natural energy flows are low power and widely distributed.

We don't demand energy, we demand goods and services.

If we need space heating then design our buildings to tap light from the sun, not build a dangerous nuclear reactor, then connect to our house by a fragile grid.

Our dependence on a fragile grid is not only the electricity grid, it is the fragile supply lines stretching halfway around the world, vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorist attack. Do we really need the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline stretching from the Caspian through Turkish occupied Kurdistan or the OCP (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados) pipeline running through Amazonian Ecuador or the Trans Alaskan Pipeline running through pristine Arctic wilderness?

An electricity supply system is very hard brittle supply system, as we saw in August 2003 when supply networks crashed in the US and UK. Electricity is high grade supply, which is needed in some applications, eg medical equipment, telecoms, computing, but not in others, eg space heating. If a district heating system went down for a few hours we would probably not notice, and if we did we can put on extra clothing or turn on alternative heating.

We should be looking at localising the grid, making areas self-sufficient, so the grid is then only used to correct minor imbalances, not as a major transmission conduit. Electricity has the problem that is instantaneous, it cannot be stored, at least not as electricity.

In 1952, a Blue Ribbon report to Harry Truman predicted that the future of America's energy rested with the sun. It predicted 13 million solar-powered homes by 1975, and the promise of decentralized, off-grid self-sufficiency.

Instead, Dwight Eisenhower embarked on the Peaceful Atom. A trillion dollars programme that has left us with crashing grids and dangerous nukes that are vulnerable to terrorism and must shut down precisely when they're most needed, as they did during this latest blackout.

Jimmy Carter, frightened by the OPEC severing of Middle East oil, pushed a massive solar energy and energy saving programme, only to be immediately abandoned when the cowboy took office.

The answer under Bush Jnr is a continuation of deregulation and an energy bill that gives more nuclear subsidies and a big push for fossil fuels, especially coal. The fossil fuel companies, who were major contributers to the last Bush-Cheney election campaign, will no doubt show their appreciation by showering Bush-Cheney 2004 with money to ensure their team gets re-elected.

In the mid 1990s, there was proposed for California a 600-megawatt network of solar, wind and other renewable generators that would have entirely prevented the fake deregulatory crisis of 2000-1. It was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, but then killed by Southern California Edison and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Fuel cells and a hydrogen economy are the future. Local generation and local storage. Our needs for electric, or for that matter energy, are widely distributed, usually low power, and local. We should therefore be thinking of low power, small scale local generation.

The University of East Anglia (UEA), is to build two wind turbines, which will generate more than enough power for the whole campus, with the surplus being sold back to the National Grid. This is part of a broader project, Cred (The Community Carbon Reduction Project), set up at UEA to reach the government’s target of reducing carbon emissions by 60% by 2050, but in half the time.

Nidderdale High School and Community College in Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire is the third and largest school in the UK to install its own wind turbine. The turbine generates enough clean, sustainable energy to provide 15-20% of the school’s needs - as well as dropping the fuel bill.

A turbine at Cassop Primary School in County Durham has been in operation since 1999 and provides twice the school’s electricity, with surplus going back to the Grid, and the school is also setting up an environment centre. Catchgate School in County Durham powers itself completely with its own turbine.

If a few schools can do it - what about the rest of us! Instead of large unsustainable dam projects, we should be installing micro-turbines.

Wind turbines are objectionable when huge, not when small and local. Solar cells on the roof, solar cell cladding a planning requirement for office blocks and community buildings. Passive heating and cooling. Not large gigawatt power plants linked by a fragile vulnerable grid.

Communities should be energy self-sufficient.

A criticism of local generation is that it is not 100% reliable, demand is not matched to supply. True, but we then use the grid to make up the difference.

A decentralised distributed system is not only more resilient, it is also more economic.

rivers of blood

When we look at our fragile grid, we see transmission lines and pipelines. We are blind to the rivers of blood that flow through our fragile arteries.

The blood that is spilled in Nigeria to extract oil from the Niger Delta. The blood that is spilled in Colombia and Ecuador to construct pipelines.

The blood that is spilled in West Papua to extract copper ore.

A hard, brittle energy system is dependent on, nourished by and embedded in, a hard political system – corrupt, unrepresentative elites, there to do the bidding of Big Business. A localised, community-based, self -sufficient soft energy system depends on the active support and participation of the local community. This will only come about when we have participatory democracy, where all the community participates in the decision making.

The blackouts in North America and London and the southeast show how vulnerable we are to equipment failure, system overload or terrorist attack. Indeed in both New York and London the reaction on the street was that it was a terrorist attack. The irony is that we spend billions of dollars on attacking Iraq, impose Draconian security and civil rights clampdowns in the name of homeland security, and yet do nothing about our decrepit power supply systems either in terms of system upgrades, redundancy, regulation or diversity of supply.


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An updated and expanded version of an article first published by Corporate Watch.
Gaia index ~ soft energy paths ~ deep ecology ~ localisation
(c) Keith Parkins 2003 -- October 2003 rev 2