The New York Sun
It will happen again. The mayor, the governor, and congressional committees will all hold hearings, and point fingers, while the engineers will, soon enough, find a technical explanation for what caused the massive August 14 black-out. There will be all sorts of sonorous pronouncements about how utilities ought to be regulated differently, and a raft of truly silly calls for more solar and wind power, and more conservation to take the strain off the grid. Very few people, however, will get around to acknowledging the few key realities.
First, an engineering reality, the widely shared, tightly inter-connected grid of wires that makes cheap electric power possible is inherently vulnerable. New York City gets some 20% of its power from far away — more on hot days or during local plant outages. Sometimes it comes from the far reaches of Quebec, and as many just learned, sometimes far to the West. Hundreds of thousands of miles of above-ground wires and substations are exposed to lightning, falling trees, ice storms, and the inevitable mistakes made by the people who operate and maintain them. On top of that now, we must add the post-September 11 possibility of systematic sabotage. A 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences starkly concedes that a “coordinated attack on a selected set of key points [of the grid] could result in a long-term, multi-state blackout. While power might be restored in parts of the region within a matter of days or weeks, acute shortages could mandate rolling blackouts for as long as several years.”
Second, an economic fact about ourselves, and our modern society: Demand for power will continue to grow. Electric power is the fuel of the 21st century. It powers the data hubs and telecom on Wall Street, the cash registers on Fifth Avenue, and digitally controlled manufacturing across the nation. Well before this decade is out, New York City alone will need at least 3,000 megawatts of new electric supply — the output of one-and-a-half new Indian Points. Make that two-and-a-half, if policy makers somehow succumb to the scare tactics of a foolish fringe and shut down the one Indian Point nuclear power plant that New York already has.
So, if New York City does not replace and expand its existing fleet of aging power plants, there will be only two options: Let the city become power short — the effect of which would be a long-term economic brown-out; or import more and more power from ever- farther away — putting yet more demand on the self-same already over-stressed electric transmission system that failed us last week.
There is nothing inherently wrong with importing power. But much must be done to beef up the grid just to meet current demands, never mind sharing even more power. Silicon and telecom technologies most assuredly exist today (they didn’t a decade back) which can substantially increase the carrying capacity of existing wires and transmission corridors, and to increase the ability to isolate, mitigate, and repair problems. Through the use of ultra high-power solidstate power switching technologies (progeny of the silicon revolution) and intelligent sensors (progeny of the telecom revolution), engineers can now add capacity, intelligence, and robustness to power lines. A substation at Marcy, N.Y., near Utica, was so upgraded just last year, boosting capacity of existing transmission wires by 240 megawatts.
Utilities know they can do much more of this, and add the networked intelligence to monitor and more effectively control the grids. But it will require bold public officials, not private sector CEOs, to create an environment conducive to such costly investments. Spending on the grid has been in precipitous decline for well over a decade. Any such efforts will take time, and will be delayed not the least because of squabbling over who pays, who profits, and who fixes the labyrinth of regulatory issues. In short, everyone has an incentive to improve the grid now. But it won’t happen fast enough. And when the improvements are finally complete, they won’t be good enough. The probabilities of grid failures will eventually decrease, but they will still happen.
Thus, the third reality is that any prospect for a sustained grid outage is increasingly intolerable for a growing array of critical power needs. By “critical” one means those uses of electricity that are far from frivolous — not the TVs, lights, entertainment, and shopping mall air conditioning — but powering the digital-enabled financial and communications networks, the cell towers, emergency 911 call centers, airports (not just control towers, but security scanners and runway lights), hospitals, subways, and if the power stays out long enough, food storage, water and gasoline pumps. All told, at least 10% of demand would be deemed critical by any serious calculation. The only way to serve these essential power needs when the grid goes dark is to have yet more, comparatively small, back-up power plants — and in some cases, arrays of back-up batteries — right on top of those critical loads.
Serving critical loads during inevitable outages sounds simple enough in theory, but requires remarkably exacting engineering in practice, and is near impossible to implement against the constellation of regulatory obstacles facing the operating, connecting, and siting of small generators and their associated fuel supplies. (My colleague and I have, quite coincidentally, just completed a major study on just issue — copies are available at our Web site.) Surely the costs of protection pale against the social, not to mention financial costs of critical outages — estimates are already in that put those 30 black hours at a cost to New York City of $500 million. There is, in short, no choice but to create the framework and incentives to build the back-ups to keep critical loads lit.
We thus find ourselves facing what might be termed the “perfect storm” — a confluence of three fronts: rising power demand, declining spending on power networks, and new threats from hostile forces. All this is occurring at a time when electricity is ever more critical to a modern economy and city.
In the coming days and weeks as the forensics unravel what happened on August 14, count on comparisons to other industries as models on how to fix electric power. The telecom and natural gas transport industries are favorites for object lessons. But the flow of anything physical — whether gas and oil, or cars and boxes — just doesn’t hold deeply relevant lessons for the flow of massive quantities of electrons. Physical things move very differently, and very slowly, compared to electricity — and power problems move, well, at the speed of electricity. The telecom industry manages a more similar product. But unlike telecom — where there are many alternative means to send and store electrons and their quantum cousins, radio and light waves — in the electric power business, there are just two ways to get kilo- to mega-watt flows of electrons; on wires from a power plant far away, or your own power plant in the basement. That’s it. There’s no Internet vs. phone line. No wireless alternative to a landline. (The wireless transmission of megawatts of electrons is a technology sought by the military to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles.)
So long before the expert reports and blue ribbon panels emerge with their recommendations, there’s no excuse not to take action because reality dictates the answers. Build power plants, invest in new and better transmission, and still assume they’ll fail, so add back-up at critical nodes. In short, start immediately to plan and spend on both adequate and reliable electric supply, from the top of the grid to the bottom. To do less post-September 11,and in the 21st-century economy, is an abrogation of both responsibility and common sense.
© 2003 The New York Sun