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August 17, 2003

—but what do they care?
Posted by Teresa at 10:05 AM *

First, an exchange of comments between Mike Ford and myself, on August 15, in the comments thread following my Fiat Lux! post. Mike goes first:

Okay, Big Surprise of the Day: I have just seen a videoclip of a federal spokesthingy (I missed his name, and it was edited down to one long sentence) explaining that the blackout was all the fault of … regulation.

You see, the utilities would just love to replace their distribution system, but evil regulators prevent them from raising their rates. (Take that, Gray Davis!)

I suspect that this argument, to dignify it with such a word, is about be heard a lot, though not on the networks I listen to.

Actually, since last night I’ve been expecting a demand for enormous federal handouts to utility companies, probably playing the terrorist defense card.
I followed with:
Goodness. I find I’m still capable of being surprised. Deregulation is what’s made us, in the memorable words of someone I don’t remember, a first-world nation with a third-world power grid. Ol’ Georgie Boy has been making all the appropriate noises about this crisis, but then he always does in the first week. If he’s running true to form, the investigation into the causes of the blackout will be starved for funds, its results will be gutted and rewritten in ways its authors wouldn’t recognize (poor Charlotte-Sophia!), and not a penny will actually go toward any of the improvements he promised when he was temporarily Sounding Presidential.
Today, the Washington Post has a story headlined Bush to Back Delay Of Power Grid Plan:
The Bush administration intends to side with a Senate Republican attempt to freeze a disputed regulatory proposal meant to strengthen the nation’s aging power transmission system, which was blamed in last week’s massive blackout, a senior administration official said yesterday. …
An explanation of why this is important, from later in the article:
The need for more investment in transmission grids has become an increasingly urgent priority for most of the energy industry.

The grid began in the 1930s and was expanded in the 1950s when problems occurred. It was never meant to provide backup power between utilities when problems occurred, not as a national system, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who backs FERC’s role in shifting power away from the states. “Our power grid was built and has been largely regulated on a state-by-state basis,” Bingaman said. “It was never intended to serve as an electricity super-highway.”

But since the beginning of electricity deregulation in 1992, the transactions moving power over long-distance high-voltage lines have shot up 400 percent, creating dangerous congestion at a number of bottlenecks around the country. Meanwhile investment in the nation’s 170,000-mile high-voltage grid has stalled as the electric-power industry tries to recover from huge stock market losses. Last year, less money was spent on the grid, after allowing for inflation, than in any year since the Great Depression, says the Electric Power Research Institute.

“It is very well known where there are weak links in the transmission grid,” said Elizabeth A. Moler, former FERC chairwoman and now a lobbyist for Exelon, a utility based in Chicago. “There are maps of them. The fact that these weak links persist is ridiculous.”

Every day, thousands of megawatts of power are bought and sold between regions, transforming the way in which the U.S. electrical system worked in the first half of the last century, when one company served a region as both generator and distributor of electricity.

Some big utility companies depend on shipments of power from distant states to provide critical reserves for peak loads during heat waves. If that power is not available when it is needed, power failures are a threat.

After a series of regional power failures in 1999, an Energy Department panel warned: “The problem is not that we have not learned from past outages. … In many instances we have not taken the necessary steps to design and implement the solutions.

“The overall effect has been that the infrastructure for reliability … has been considerably eroded,” the panel said.
Stuff like this is what responsible government is all about. The power grid infrastructure is as non-ideological as an issue can get, as non-ideological as rating railway bridges for maximum loads.

It doesn’t matter how you voted, or who you supported. Staunch conservatives get stuck in stalled elevators, and sit wheezing miserably in the hot and muggy darkness, just like everyone else.

Still think these guys give a damn about you?

Addendum: More on this topic.

Comments on --but what do they care?:
#1 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 11:06 AM:

Ah, but you think -- being a sensible and civilized person of countenance -- that the purpose of government is to provide for the common defense, to maintain the common mechanisms of prosperity, and to provide succor in disaster.

They -- being without question barbarians -- think that the purpose of government is to pile money and other valuables in places where it is easy to steal.

They've got a morality -- quite an involved one, and certainly a live and growing one -- which says that doing this is an active good.

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 02:58 PM:

I just don't understand voting for them. It's like being a citizen of Constantinople and voting for the Crusades.

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 03:11 PM:

But Teresa, think of the tourist dollars!


#4 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 03:38 PM:


"Just because you're on their floor doesn't mean they're on your floor."


"The guys at the top get the elevator, and we get the shaft."

#5 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 03:40 PM:

About the time I went off to college, there was a book called THE LAST PLAY, by . . . James Ridgeway. Dutton, 1973. Yeah, that's when I went to college. (Thank you, abebooks, that'll be all for now.) Anyway, this was a study of what Ridgeway believed was a deliberate, long-term attempt to cartelize (he used the word "monopolize") global energy, both sources and distribution, the principle of course being that manufacturing or social models might change, but any society was going to require energy sources, and having one's finger on the switch was, well, you know.

At three decades' remove, I don't remember a lot about the book, though there were discussions of interlocking ownership, cartelism, and all the other business conspiracy stuff that raging lefty Adam Smith told us would happen. I believe there was some discussion of decentralization, but what the West recognizes as urban consumer society doesn't have enough individual air rights to run itself on solar, and anything else requires at least fuel, usually distribution, and probably both.

Guess I'll go to the library tomorrow.

#6 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 08:58 PM:

Teresa: it's more like being a citizen of Greece and voting for the Crusades - not realizing that the path to the "axis of evil" that the Franks promise to defend you against runs through your house. Or really believing the popular bull about standing tall, independence, etc. - cf Fred Kuhn's

Standing on our own two feet's what made this country strong.
Collectivism, so they say -- well, we'll show them the Christian way:
Get together Saturday to save old Atkins' farm!

(from memory, without title as I can't find A Song of Gods Gone Mad). I think Fred missed a point about the difference between community and government - but the communitarians don't seem to allow for people who don't have a community, or issues that are larger than a community. And some just don't seem capable of believing that a corporation could misbehave -- cf some of the remarks after Ford was acquitted of saving money by not explosion-proofing Pintos, thanks to wangling itself a rural jury.

Maybe it takes somebody like Teddy Roosevelt - someone who is running on the nominally-right-of-center ticket and therefore can't be tarred with leftism / attempted class warfare / ... - to put a chokechain on private greed. (I'm old enough to remember saying that no Democrat could have gotten away with going to China as Nixon did.) But where do you find such a person when the Republicans have made an art of running to the outside in primaries and the center in the general election? (Not that I approve of the DLC's claim that several leading presidential-candidate Democrats are too left to be elected; I'm just wondering if my ass can stand another hard roll or the country another four years of the Knights of Ni and their Shrubbery.)

(Graydon - note that "their" definition of government doesn't work without convincing a lot of people that "they" are right. Remember that the modern version of Lincoln's some/all dictum ends "...and that's usually enough".

Not coherent, just tired -- and wondering how many cabbies will lecture me about the insanity of the U. S. "health" "care" system during Torcon (only one at Conadian, but I'm told it gets conservative west of Ontario...).

#7 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 11:30 PM:

Chip --
Cabbies in Toronto won't lecture you about anything except maybe sports teams, and if you respond non-commitally a couple of times they'll stop talking to you at all. (At least, that's been my experience of them; your cabbie may vary.)

"Their", well, no, they're not trying to convince people about their actual objectives; they're trying to appeal to utterly unquantified emotional idiocies long enough to get an unbreakable grip on power. None of them have actually got up and said that what they're after is to rob everyone in the US sufficently blind that no one can ever threaten their social position ever again; one must crunch the numbers and investigate actions to recognize this, and far too many people in the US are incapable of believing in a quantified argument over a moral one.

#8 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 07:03 AM:

We have a National Grid. I'm not saying it's good, but we used to run a Wang computer without a backup generator or UPS. I think there was one power cut in the whole time I worked there - and that was because a crazy electrician had made a mistake with the earth lead in the building we worked in.

So I'd say the Grid works pretty well here. We were forced to have privatisation of our electrical companies too (being a US fiefdom) but luckily the Grid the Labour party introduced in the sixties is still coping.

#9 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 07:14 AM:

A neighbor of mine from India called her brother back in Delhi during the blackout. Had he heard...? No, he hadn't. He didn't see that it was that big a deal. "Here, it's news when the power comes on..."

#10 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 10:41 AM:

"in the memorable words of someone I don’t remember, a first-world nation with a third-world power grid."

Gov. Richardson of N. Mexico, I believe--remember him, he might be president one day . . .

#11 ::: Oliver Morton ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 12:27 PM:

Leaving aside Richardson's presidential prospects, though, there's a good post on Slate pointing out that this was not the way that third-world power grids fail; third world systems fail a little and often, not rarely but massively. Relevant research reported at

#12 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 12:40 PM:

Staunch conservatives get stuck in stalled elevators, and sit wheezing miserably in the hot and muggy darkness, just like everyone else.

That's logic, but it doesn't always work. For instance, certain people who breathe the same air as everyone else have been historically notable for lack of interest in clean air laws.

CHip, at the time of which Teresa speaks, Constantinople was Greek. The area now occupied by the nation of Greece was in those days the boonies of the Greek state, the Byzantine Empire, and indeed was one of the areas to which the aristocracy fled when the Fourth Crusaders sacked and occupied Constantinople. (see "Epirus, Despotate of")

#13 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 12:49 PM:

Last year I submitted a link to bOING-bOING: The lastest bit of evidence that energy traders had gamed the system to Earn Big $$$ at the expense of electricity users and California's economy.

A CBNWTTL (Corporate brown nosers who think they're Libertarians) posted this article in full to the comment section:'s%20Blackouts%20Caused%20by%20Demons.html

In short: If you think that power suppliers colluded and schemed, you're irrational and irresponsible and probably believe in demons, because the Invisible Hand makes everyone in a market play by the rules and inevitably produces an optimum outcome.

I like to think of academics like this bozo as our equivalent of Soviet-Era Professors of Marxist-Leninism. They've got charts, books of theory, cadres of ideology-drunk grad students writing papers based on the canon, and politicians who invite them to fancy catered meetings.

But when it comes to understanding the real world, thier utterly hopeless.

#14 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 01:14 PM:

Du'h. Monday after vacation spelling syndrome strikes.

*they are* utterly helpless.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 02:07 PM:

If the Invisible Hand were a reliable regulator of business practices, Dilbert wouldn't be funny.

#16 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 02:47 PM:

I'm reminded of the line about in this very interesting political memoir (recently blogged by Avram Grumer), which describes libertarians as "a pert little faction composed mostly of people who, when told about something going on in the world, reply, 'Yes, but how would it work in theory?'"

And yes, I'm at least an octoroon libertarian.

#17 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 03:04 PM:

Hybrid vigor is a good thing.

#18 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 03:27 PM:

Some years ago I worked for a company which makes software to help power companies figure out how to set rates for different customers to maximize income with such contract arrangements as "when there is a strain on the system and we tell you to cut back if you don't cut power by 20% you will be charged a large premium for every kilowatt hour you're supposed to shed that you haven't, but in return your rates the rest of the time will be a lot lower, provided you don;t go above certain levels of consumption" sorts of arrangements." The company mainly made software for doing load analysis and prediction, which incorporated modeling stuff like the above. It promoted figuring out how to buy power and sell power, to meet customer demands/sell from the "spot market."

I was quite surprised that day the power went out in the political units which bordered on various Great Lakes, to turn on the TV set and be told of a massive power outage; the protective circuitry worked for the parts of the power grid providing the power for me. I am duly grateful for this. What I don;t understand is why the protective systems failed elsewhere.... past experience in the world of Nuclear Blast Effects models, and the sorts of clamping on power systems that can shield against -that- sort of instantaneous electromagnetic pulse and field change, make me rather contempuous of power systems and operator that/who, in the wake of The Great Northeast Power Failure of 1965, following which there were -supposed- to be over- and under- voltage change condition failure protections put into the grids to prevent outages from ever propagating again, with modern technology and equipment, couldn;'t be bothered with the oversight and review and maintenance and operational implementations consonance with preventing cascade failures.

It's not that the knowledge and technology is lacking, it's the the will and effort haven;t been implemented/maintained uniformly.

Again, the power stayed on -here- -- that means that the operational processes and procedure to prevent a cascade failure, -worked- here. They didn't work in all the places where the power grid went down, that weren't the immediate vicinty of where the "initiating event" or evens, occurred.

Um, there was a relatively recent explosion at one of the power generations facilities in eastern Massachusetts. It didn't take the grid down, even though some of the power production facilities, literally blew up at a major

"EVERETT, Mass. (AP) One of the severely burned workers in an Everett electrical substation explosion and fire died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, while two co-workers remained in critical condition..... The electrical service to about 3,800 customers in the Everett area was initially affected; service to about 400 had been restored by midafternoon"

"But just three hours after the utility leaders left [Swift's] office, a cable failure at an NStar substation in Everett caused nearly 6,000 customers in East Arlington, Somerville, and parts of East Boston, Charlestown, and Chelsea to lose power for up to two hours, according to NStar spokesman Michael Durand"

Hmm, thinking about power distribution a bit more.... a lot of the power in this area comes in from Hydro Quebec. If suddenly a major transmission line went down, what would happen... I suppose it depends on what the load-shedding protocols are, regarding what would get cut off immediatel, if there were the sudden drop in energy availble, compared to kilowatt-hour consumption demand. The term "graceful degradation" applies to how the load;s supposed to get shed -- that is, there would be customers suddenly getting their power cut, but those wouldn't because the distribution system went into massive cascade failure, but rather, load-shedding of customers that the supply of energy were insufficient to service, dropped in favor of customers of higher priority to provide service to. In an efficient market, the dropped customers would be ones paying low rates which provided that when it came time for load dropping, they were subject to unscheduled service interruptions, voluntarily, or cutbacks in delivered power and curtailments.

The situation that e.g. Cleveland was in, with critical services not having working backup power, appalled me. There seems to have been a dual or triple failure there -- not just the breaker system failing, but there being a failure to have emergency power generators taking over, and the failure of planning/implementaton for their to be working emergency generators for the water system.... Perhaps old Cold War EMP protection clamping equipment with lots of heavy copper in it, ought to be dropped on some people's heads.... or maybe an old flywheel from one of the generators at MIT that got the power grid rebooted back in 1965 the last time this sort of failure happened.

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