Friday, August 15, 2003

More on the political economy of the blackout, from the World Socialist Web Site.
Privatisation, mergers, costcutting and restructuring have resulted in a lack of investment in new plant and maintenance. As a consequence, the various power grids across the US have become increasingly unstable, particularly at times of high demand such as during heat waves. Any fault in one plant or at one point in the transmission system creates a cascading effect as one station after another shuts down automatically to avoid dangerous overloading.

That is precisely what happened in the latest blackout. . . .

Bill Browning from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a thinktank in Colorado, told CBC News Online: �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. . . .

�At one time, the grid system seemed logical. If you have to do maintenance on one plant, then the grid connects everyone so the power keeps up. But that is also a fragility in the system. The system, as we have designed it, is brittle. The only way we can make it resilient is to [have] a mixture so that if a portion of it goes down we can have islands of power still operating.�

What is rational as far as providing a stable electricity supply, however, cuts directly across the interests of corporations that have sought to make big profits by buying and restructuring power plants or, as in the case of Enron, through outright speculation. Costcutting at individual power stations, the failure to build new ones to meet growing demand and the lack of planning and coordination have produced a system that has become distinctly more than brittle.

One of the possible triggers for yesterday�s blackout--the Niagara Mohawk power grid--was the subject of a merger between Niagara Mohawk Holdings and the British-based National Grid Group in 2000. The new company indicated at the time that it planned to achieve annual cost savings of around $90 million across its operations in New England and New York through the destruction of hundreds of jobs. The following year, power rates for corporate users were slashed while those to small businesses and residential customers increased.

Two years ago an article appeared in the Buffalo News warning of the dangers of deregulation. �Instead of the [New York] state having a surplus of power that would last until at least 2005, supplies are getting uncomfortably tight today, especially downstate, and power consumption is expected to keep growing by 1.2 percent to 1.4 percent a year. At the same time, private companies haven�t built any new power plants yet, even though the agency that manages the state�s power grid says New York needs to increase its generating capacity by about 25 percent over the next four years to avoid electricity shortages and higher prices.�

Whether or not the Niagara Mohawk power grid was the immediate cause for yesterday�s massive blackout, the above warning points to the underlying problems that made such a breakdown somewhere in the system inevitable.

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