The Lights Went Out
Breaking the Blackout 2003 News Blackout
By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice
Everything is political.
If most of
Predictable and Predicted
There really were no surprise technological failures here.
No, “oh wow,” we didn’t think that could happen.
And no real need for a chorus of “oh, gee, let’s have an
investigation.” What happened was
totally predictable, and in fact, was predicted by the US Energy Department
during the Clinton administration, whose energy secretary, Bill Richardson,
described our nations power system as “a third world grid.”
Jack Casazza, a former electric utility executive and author of “Sham?
Shame! Inside the Electric Power Industry,” predicted a blackout of the
magnitude that we just experienced would hit by 2004.
Casazza, it turns out, was pretty much on target, predicting the
breakdown would begin in the
The problem is that in this climate of deregulation,
utility companies are not required by the government to properly maintain the
power grid. Hence, while investors
pour money into profitable new power plants, there is little incentive to invest
in the less profitable wires that carry juice to consumers, and more
importantly, between power districts. During
the last decade the grid has begun to resemble
Wake Up and Lie
This brings us to dark Thursday, when those of us lucky
enough to have power got to hear George W. Bush proclaim that, surprise of
surprises, he suspects that our power grid needs updating, calling the blackout
“a wakeup call.” He explained
that, “We’ll have time to look at it and determine whether or not our grid
needs to be modernized. I happen to
think it does, and have said so all along.”
Lame as this proclamation appears to be, it also is the opposite of the
truth, since Bush has opposed Democratic initiatives to upgrade the grid since
seizing office in 2001. That year,
One week before the bill failed, former House Minority
Leader Dick Gephardt, in a rare pre-9/11 moment, accused Bush of
“obstructionism,” arguing that the “president” was “committed to
helping the big energy special interests” who opposed the bill.
Three months later the nation became distracted, with the Weasel Chief
Gephardt more interested in lining up behind a “Wartime” Bush, then in
arguing about electricity. The power grid, predictably, failed 26 months later.
How’s that for homeland security? Bush
went on in 2001, fighting to roll back efficiency standards for air
conditioners, a move that will further strain the overstressed grid.
Holding the Grid Hostage
For the next two years the congress continued to fail to pass a bill mandating modernization of the power grid. This was primarily due to Bush administration insistences that any such bill should also contain riders to further deregulate the energy industry, open wilderness areas to oil and gas drilling and further subsidize the nuclear power industry while relieving it of safety regulations. The current House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, told The New York Times that Bush put the interests of energy companies ahead of the American people by insisting that we let oil companies drill in wilderness areas “rather than modernize our energy system.” Bush’s kindergartenish “my way or no way” insistence on linking environmental destruction and corporate welfare to any bill to update the grid is blackmail, with the nation’s power grid held as hostage. Recent post-blackout Republican rhetoric blaming the power failure on the oil industry’s inability to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is just the most recent example of this campaign.
Let’s get one thing straight. The power failure was not due to a lack of energy. It was due to an antiquated delivery system. In any event, electric energy should not be a problem in this country, with biomass, wind and solar technology now developed to a point (no thanks to the federal government) where it is a feasible and sustainable power source, both on the grid (my house is powered by a 100% biomass and solar mix at a slightly lower cost than conventional electricity thanks to the Energy Cooperative of New York – www.ecny.org) and off the grid.
The problem is political. The keyword here is deregulation. Deregulation of the electric industry began in 1992, initiated by George Bush Senior. The electric industry, according to BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast, rewarded the Bush family by contributing $16 million to the Republican party in 2000 – a donation that would have been banned under prior rules governing electric utilities instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Looting the Energy Market
The current industry-centered deregulation of the national
power grid has created market-driven chaos, with electric bills skyrocketing as
high as 300% in
Of course this self-interest is mandatory given Wall Street’s carnivorous nature. Dennis Kucinich points to First Energy of Ohio, the utility in whose territory the Blackout of 2003 began. “First Energy,” he explains, “has consistently failed to invest in upgrading of equipment.” Instead, he argues, “Their emphasis has been on holding onto their cash so that they maintain the fiscal stability of their company while Wall Street is looking at it.” First Energy, despite one of the worse plant safety records in the industry, can’t help but follow a policy of hording cash while their system goes to hell.
Hording cash not only looks good.
It’s also a defense mechanism. If First Energy didn’t keep large cash
assets readily on hand, they’d be vulnerable to a hostile takeover.
Hence, in a financial culture obsessed with short term profits, the only
way a utility can operate is recklessly – which is the strongest argument for
reregulating the industry.
Mugging the Nation
The recent blackout illustrates the problem.
The current theory is that the first power failure began after a
transmission line under the control of First Energy subsidiary Toledo Edison
failed. This caused an undetected
power overload in another transmission line which picked up the load.
It overheated and eventually failed, short circuiting into a tree.
Greg Palast recounts how Toledo Edison was “messing around” for an
hour, failing to either fix or contain the problem, before it spread throughout
the grid. As First Energy’s plants
went down, a power surge moved east like an electron wave, knocking out adjacent
plants until the problem reached Niagara Mohawk’s territory in
If the Bush administration has its way, none of the utilities responsible for the blackout will be penalized. To the contrary, they’ll be rewarded for their greed and incompetence with rate hikes. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham argues that “the people who benefit from the [current] system,” who in his mind are the already overcharged consumers and not the corporate shareholders, “should have to be part of the solution here.” Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, he clarified himself, explaining, “That means the rate-payers are going to have to contribute. We think the rates need to be sufficient to incentivize the building of new transmission [sic.].” This is akin to being mugged, only to face your mugger in court and have the judge tell you that you have to compensate your assailant for the time he had to spend mugging you. And the current Bushista call for more nuclear power and wilderness oil drilling as a solution to the problem, is akin to the judge ordering you to spend more time walking in dark dangerous areas. Under the Bush administration, this is what we call an “Energy Policy.”
Dr. Michael I.
Niman’s previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com.
Return to mediastudy.com