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Habitat Watch # 282
Great Lakes United
August 17-August 23, 2003

Blackout Special

(excerpt from PennFuture,Vol. 5/17 Special Edition): Thanks to last Thursday’s blackout, a political circus has arrived in town. Politicians are grandstanding, and the blackout is being used to advance all manner of causes.

· Sean Hannity of Fox News tells us that the blackout has something to do with oil drilling policy in Alaska.

· The Wall Street Journal yesterday published a column by Jerry Taylor of the CATO Institute, which stated that owners of the grid which include the federal government, municipalities, rural cooperatives and for-profit utilities should be allowed to charge others whatever they want for using their monopoly transmission and distribution systems.

· Robert Kuttner wrote in the New York Times that the blackout was caused by 'deregulation.' He doesn’t tell his readers that the transmission and distribution systems where the fault of the blackout is thought to lie remain fully regulated monopolies where state and federal regulators oversee reliability and have the power and responsibility to provide financial recovery of any needed investment. In fact, electricity 'deregulation' has moved only the generation part of electricity to competitive pricing. As a result, most regions of the country have a surplus of generation. So the blackout on Thursday was not caused by too little electricity coming from power plants.

Thursday’s serious events must be thoroughly investigated by industry and regulatory professionals. The North American Reliability Council and relevant public agencies must establish the true facts of what happened, when it happened, and why. And of all the unknowns right now, one of the most urgent puzzles that must be solved is why measures designed to limit the initial disturbance to a small area failed to work. We suspect that a breakdown in communication between multiple control areas partly explains the cascading blackout.

In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state public utility commissions must ask basic questions about transmission and distribution expenditures. What are the trends? Are current levels appropriate? Is the current reliability standard a system of generation and transmission engineered so that blackouts have only one day in 10 years probability of occurring in danger of eroding?

JUST GET MORE LINES, RIGHT?- While there is a pressing need to find the cause, there’s also the danger in this superheated political environment of getting carried away and overreacting. Indeed, even before anyone knows the basic facts about what started the blackout and why it spread, many people are already calling for a whole lot of money to be thrown at expanding and upgrading transmission.

To be clear, we’re not saying that targeted investment in transmission upgrades isn’t needed. In certain areas of the U.S. like Long Island and Boston, congestion on the transmission system is both a major reliability risk and economic problem. Where there are unacceptable levels of transmission congestion, owners and operators of the grid should find the least costly means of fixing those problems. Fortunately, there are ways to address transmission congestion, besides just building more transmission.

Building more generation closer to where electricity is needed will help solve the problem by not having to ship power across long distances. Distributed generation from smaller sources like microturbines, fuel cells, and solar technologies can also play a role. In fact, with the development of on-site generation technology, the grid itself may become less important over the next 20 years.

Energy conservation has always been much more than just a personal virtue, and it too has a role to play in addressing grid congestion and threats to reliability. Increasing energy conservation to reduce demands, especially at peak times, could be the lowest-cost response. Stricter energy efficiency appliance standards, especially for air conditioners, would be very helpful, but in the U.S., the Bush administration has unfortunately opposed the strongest energy efficient air conditioning standard. Consumers should also have the metering available which would allow them to reap savings by reducing their consumption at peak demand times and to be paid spot market prices for the electricity they didn’t use.

OL' RELIABLE- Lost in the hustle to turn the blackout to the advantage of a myriad causes or interests is the fact that the electric grid is engineered so that it is reliable enough to fail only one day in every ten years. At this point, there is little evidence that this long-standing reliability standard is not being met. The last large blackout in the Northeast due to grid failure happened 38 years ago in 1965. In fact, given the reliability standard of one day in 10 years, it wouldn’t be surprising if a major grid failure occurred somewhere in the country every year or so. But most of the time, the system typically operates at not much more than 50 percent of its capacity. The grid currently only gets stretched to its limits about 100 hours per year. However, if investment in any part of the industry is too little to maintain the reliability standard as a whole, steps must be taken to end any erosion.

Yet despite a system with a good reliability record, many commentators want to know what can be done to make sure that nothing like Thursday’s blackout ever, ever happens again. The answer is probably nothing.

Reliability of the grid could be increased so that the probability of failure is reduced to one day in 20 years, or even 1 day in 100 years. But electricity bills would have to skyrocket as a great deal more would have to be spent on transmission, generation, distributed generation, and demand reduction to achieve those goals.

Before blindly embarking on such a course, society needs to calm down and answer the question, how much reliability is enough? Whatever the answer, overreacting and grandstanding are not the solutions, and spending money to build more transmission is just one among several options.

PennFuture (, with offices in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, is a Pennsylvania statewide public interest membership organization, which advances policies to protect and improve the state's environment and economy. PennFuture's E-cubed is a commentary biweekly email publication concerning the current themes and trends in the energy market and is available for reprint in newspapers and other publications.

Great Lakes United’s Habitat and Biodiversity task force produces Habitat Watch with support from the George Gund Foundation and GLU coalition members. The task force is committed to protecting natural areas, wildlife, and strong conservation laws across the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River ecosystem. To join the coalition, subscribe, or send stories, contact GLU at: (716) 886-0142; fax: (716) 886-0303; or email: Past issues of Habitat Watch can be found at:

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