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.I followed with:
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.
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.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.
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.
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.