Nov. 18, 2003
"Generally, I am in favor of deregulation, but "

You've got to wonder how a seemingly localized overload on a portion of this country’s power grid can lead to the blackout of August 14. During these troubled times, the first thing everyone thought about was some terrorist activity that caused our power grid to fail. But even though some people, such as those caught in elevators, might have experienced terror that day, it was no terrorist plot that caused the North Central and Northeast corridors to go dark.

Despite the failure, we enjoy access to one of the most reliable power grids in the world. It’s not perfect — far from it — but it’s pretty darn good. The last time it failed was in 1965, and 38 years between failures is not a bad record of service. However, analysis after the fact points to imperfections in the technical and political complexity of our power distribution system that must be reckoned with if we are to avoid more frequent power outages in the future.

Think of our power grid as one massive electrical circuit, which is exactly what it is. Those of you that ever had to solve simple circuits as part of your physics homework can sympathize with the Herculean task it must be to smoothly run a circuit the size of our power grid. This megacircuit has grown in size and complexity over the decades, and today exists as a patchwork quilt of thousands of miles of transmission lines connecting hundreds of power plants.

Each day, those that control the power grid do a yeoman’s job of regulating the flow of electrons through the transmission lines and balancing the supply and demand fluctuations that develop. They follow standards and rules to control the quality of electric current, how much power to hold in reserve, and a host of other technical details. The problem is, these standards are voluntary and not always met, so how the power is regulated and monitored in one region may not be perfectly consistent with another region. In fact, there is little or no communication between various sectors of the grid, so a crisis or severe imbalance in one region can easily go unnoticed by another that could help.

Generally, I am in favor of deregulation, but in the case of electric power, political maneuvering between the states and Uncle Sam has resulted in an electrical infrastructure too fractured to guard against a small problem wreaking big havoc. Our power system has been shifting from a system of regional regulated utilities to a more deregulated national market for power. Yet, there is no single authority that has the jurisdiction to oversee the generation and distribution of power within a framework of uniform practices geared toward supplying consistent power on demand where and when it’s needed.

Something needs to be done, or this will all happen again. The political battle between the regulationists and the deregulationists, and between the states and the Feds, will continue. There does not appear to be an easy resolution in sight.

In the meantime, our business and personal lives may again be brought to a screeching halt when and if the next blackout hits. Our communications systems will go down, the Internet will be rendered useless, and melt shop managers will again be forced to watch helplessly as their latest heat of metal solidifies in their induction or reverberatory furnaces.

I am confident, though, that we will eventually make the physical upgrades the power grid needs to bring it to within the technical protocols needed to serve the power needs of our country.

I have less confidence that we can upgrade our politics to achieve this promptly.

Dean M. Peters, Editor