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Blackout Report

May 18, 2004

A public radio commentary

In the summer I enjoy sitting in the sun reading a good story filled with mystery, heros, villains, and perhaps a catastrophe that imperils the world.

It features a mighty hero brought to its knees. Indeed, the report's hero, the electrical grid, represents more than one trillion US dollars in assets, has over 200,000 miles of transmission lines, and serves nearly 240 million people. Yet this colossus was brought down in a flash.

The report builds suspense and creates dread with sentences like: "As the temperature increased from 78 degree Fahrenheit on August 11 to 87 degrees on August 14, peak load" on the electrical grid increased. I pictured vividly millions of air conditioners churning away in Cleveland, Ohio, trying to overcome the persistent heat as our hero works to keep up with demand. To no avail: At four fifteen in the afternoon on August 14, 2003 the electrical grid shutdown, stopped in it tracks like Samson without his hair.

How could this happen? The authors explain that the power grid requires the almost superhuman ability to predict the behavior of humans. You see, there is no way to store electricity cheaply in the vast quantities in which America uses it. Electricity flows at close to the speed of light, thus it must be produced at the instant it is used. And therein lies our hero's Achilles heel.

Power plants distributed across the nation must feed the grid at just the right time. Picture the grid like a balanced tightrope walker: The air conditioners pull on one side attempting to tip it off balance, but the power plants push back to keep it in balance. But if something fails then the grid can became unstable. Just as a tightrope walker loses balance and sways back and forth in larger and larger arcs until he or she falls, the electrical power grid can become unstable. On August 14th the flow of electricity rapidly increased and decreased burning out equipment until eventually the grid shut down. Why did this happen?

The authors provide us with a plethora of villains. Did a transmission line snap? Did air conditioners in the Midwest demand too much electricity? Maybe sabotage?

The authors place the blame largely on a company called First Energy in Cleveland, whose power plant didn't respond quickly enough to power fluctuations in Ohio. They also condemn the network of power plants that supply electricity to the grid. They operate too independently and communicate too poorly to control the gird.

The key question for most readers, though, when they finish this compelling report is this: Will there be a sequel? The authors say "yes" because a regional power plant may again fail, thus bringing down the power grid. Let's hope that it rises again like the Phoenix.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises