Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
August 29, 2011

On Electricity Networks

Yesterday I asked:

Why has a well off industrialized country an electricity system which breaks down for a million people due to a simple regular sized storm?

That was a serious question. Unfortunately it didn't get any serious answer but polemic accusations of Schadenfreude towards the people hit by the storm and by the partiality breakdown of the U.S. electricity distribution system. The question was serious and I have yet to find out why it was taken differently.

Here are my thoughts towards answering my question.

The electricity systems in well off industrialized countries were build within three historic-political frames. The people that built and run it maximized profits (not necessarily monetary ones) within these frames.

The political frames consisted over time of three major historic themes and what followed from them:

  • In the emerging 20th century there was popular public demand for comfortable universal access to this new thing called electricity. This despite the fact that providing electricity everywhere is not an economic optimum. Some difficult to reach places are, in total, cheaper to heat and illuminated with other forms of energy. But politicians followed the populist call - see FDR's Tennessee Valley Project or Lenin's claim that "Communism is power of the committees [soviets] plus electrification."
  • After World War II all industrialized nations recognized that military application of nuclear energy could be an essential part of their national power. They promoted civil programs to use nuclear energy for providing electricity to further their military nuclear programs as means of national power. Civil nuclear energy programs are only cost efficient if they use very large power generation stations. This led to a an electricity system where power generation is concentrated and often quite far away from the usage point. Before nuclear energy was used electric power generation for a city usually took place within that city's boundaries. Now it is usually far away from it and requires long vulnerable supply lines.
  • Generation and providing of electricity was long seen as a public task which allowed for subsidizing reliable access to electric energy even to outlying places. Politically the optimal target was providing electricity everywhere on equal terms. That changed with increasing political corruption furthering the trend towards privatization of even natural monopolies. The result was Enron and generally the neglect of reliable distribution structures due to profit maximization of private entities in monopolistic positions.

These three points: electricity access seen as a public right, centralization of power generation due to nuclear energy promotion and optimization of privatized profits instead of reliability in monopoly positions led to the situation where a storm or some unfortunate system effect can suddenly take out electricity for a lot of people for a relatively long time.

There are ways to prevent future incidents like this by healing the excesses of the above mentioned policies.

  • Electricity access is not a human right. If you decide to live on an Appalachian mountain top or in the middle of a desert do not expect that the general public will provide you with subsidized reliable electric energy. You'll have to make it yourself.
  • Localize electric energy generation to where that energy is needed. This eliminates vulnerable overland lines. Unfortunately the "green energy" folks do not get that point. They want wind farms out on the seas even where the major consumption areas are inland and far away from the wind-farms. They repeat the mistakes of nuclear energy. It would be much better to further efforts to find ways for generating energy locally (solar, geothermic, bio, fossil etc.).
  • Do not privatize natural monopolies. To lay an electric energy line to a house usually only pays off in the frame of several decades. That payoff time frame is too long to make a second line and thereby competition profitable. Privatized networks means that everyone gets stuck with a private monopoly provider which has no incentive to adopt its prices to its real costs. This is a state where things are better (cheaper for consumers) when in non-profit public than private hands. Natural monopolies like electricity-, water-, sewage- and telecommunication networks should be kept in public ownership and maintained with more weight towards reliability than profits.

If those preventive points would have been policy the recent storm would have had, in my estimate, less negative effects.

What is your take on the issue?

Posted by b on August 29, 2011 at 19:58 UTC | Permalink


Ok a few months ago I came across this article.

Basically the US Government was worried about a terrorist attack taking down the US electricity grid. But a study (by actual physicists ^^) has found that the US grid is actually to crappy to be vulnerable to a terrorist attack. The problem with it is that it was built carelessly and by many different companies so it is actually a patchwork of grids thrown together, making it alot harder to take down.

Compare this with European countries which almost all had national state run electricity companies and therefore 1 unified grid and it would probably be easier for a terrorist attack to disrupt a united grid. But with regards to electricity grids in storms the US just sucks.

**** Also random interesting fact: China has now installed enough wind turbines domestically to generate 110% of Brazils current electricity usage. ****

Posted by: Colm O' Toole | Aug 29 2011 20:41 utc | 1

What's the difference between a 5000 KM gas pipeline from Siberia and a 600 km electrical line from Hydro Quebec? It's all about getting the cheapest rate and not worrying about externalities. Ice storms knock out power all over New York and New England every year; it's just cheaper to deal with the interruptions than to build a more robust network.

Posted by: Biklett | Aug 29 2011 21:12 utc | 2

You get the answers you want according to how you frame the question.

You have now rephrased it differently from your original post, opting for historical/social/cultural/financial reasons why.

If your question is why did the northeastern US grid breakdown with Irene, the simple answer is, again, the grid is supplied with above-ground power lines.

In this diary, you phrase the question a bit differently, i.e., what are the basic reasons why the US has the power grid infrastructure it does.

Posted by: sleepy | Aug 29 2011 21:35 utc | 3

Electricity access is not a human right. If you decide to live on an Appalachian mountain top or in the middle of a desert do not expect that the general public will provide you with subsidized reliable electric energy.

While this may be true in some places. It's not in rural Arkansas. As i understand it, I could buy a rural piece of land, build a house, and the utility company would be obligated to pay for installation of all but the last quarter mile.

Posted by: Eureka Springs | Aug 29 2011 21:38 utc | 4

Local generation close to where electricity is used won't work unless you rely on fossil fuels (usually gas). Renewable energy works best when it is fed into a grid that distributes it over a vast area. One reason for this is the huge land areas needed for large-scale renewable generation - for an average output equivalent to a 1 GW power station, you need 500 sq km of wind farm, which you wouldn't want to live next to. Another reason is that renewables need to be able to share load across the continent, so that calm periods in northern Europe are compensated by wind energy from southern Europe and vice versa. The more interconnections the grid has, the more resilient it is to local shutdown (just like the internet)

The technology to distribute electricity over thousand of kilometres - high-voltage DC - is now well developed. The supergrid plan would connect all of Europe and the north African coast with a HVDC transmission grid. While this would be good for wind generation (load balancing), its real potential would be for giant solar thermal plants in the north African desert to supply Europe, with north Africa getting desalinated water as a by-product.

I see no sign at the moment that European (especially German) policy makers have any clue about the implications of their energy strategy. Wind, wave, tide and solar photovoltaics can't come anywhere near replacing coal, gas and nuclear: only solar thermal in deserts can be scaled up for this. For this they need a long-term partnership with the Islamic world, but current EU foreign policies (and in some countries domestic policy also) seem designed to achieve the exact opposite

Posted by: pmr9 | Aug 29 2011 22:28 utc | 5

As others noted, the lines are strung in the air; the system was built in an ad hoc fashion.

Additionally, the utilities themselves are regulated monopolies which are focused on maximizing profits, rather than upgrading infrastructure.

Finally, it wasn't a "simple regular sized storm" but one a bit larger than normal.

Posted by: mussogorski | Aug 30 2011 2:54 utc | 6

[looong text on some energy "invention" deleted. Please post just a link to it - thanks - b, (the clean up crew)]

Posted by: CHAGANTI | Aug 30 2011 4:41 utc | 7

clean up needed on aisle 3?

Posted by: sabine | Aug 30 2011 10:28 utc | 8

Here's an interesting, and highly detailed, read on the topic.

Consumers in the country: technology and social change in rural America

Posted by: Morocco Bama | Aug 30 2011 13:02 utc | 9

Well the US electric grid - like others - is not in very good shape, and compared to others it can be called vulnerable (a look at the grid on a map andd some photos of the US suffices.) What struck me in this story is that we have entered an age of hype of threats of all kinds, natural, mechanical, human, terrorist, medical (e.g. bird flu) and ppl no longer know what or whom to believe. This is very bad for public morale, as well as anticipation, prevention, management of catastrophes or untoward events of all kinds.

Posted by: Noirette | Aug 31 2011 15:10 utc | 10

Make no mistake, there's a grid being developed and implemented, but it's not for you...unless you're a profit-seeking Algorithm.!

Posted by: Morocco Bama | Aug 31 2011 15:12 utc | 11

It's hard to read these comments as the right margin seems to have been broken. Any way to clean this up, fix the margins? Thanks!

Posted by: jawbone | Aug 31 2011 18:39 utc | 12

@jawbone - Morocco Bama's link was the likely culprit that the right margin was broken for you. I have corrected it now. (The problem btw does not occur in Firefox)

Posted by: b | Sep 1 2011 12:58 utc | 13

The problem does occur in Opera, though there is a button to force "fit to page."

Remember the "browser wars?" Although only a few years ago, kids today -- harmlessly channeled into Facebook and "push technology" news on their cellphones, the technology safely buried "under the hood," as it were -- would never even understand it.

@Morocco Bama:

Thanks for the link. Fantastic book! Rarely is a work of Sociology or Anthropology so nuanced as to examine hegemonic myths, grassroots response, and the resulting dialectic. Of course, there is no greater myth than that of unopposed technological progress and its manifold benefits for the planet.

Posted by: Malooga | Sep 1 2011 16:30 utc | 14

Here's an interesting article:

The article mentions that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our energy infrastructure a D+, which is scandalous to say the least.

From my own experience living in completely deregulated central Texas, we often have rolling brownouts when the electrical demand gets to high (like in our ongoing record drought), and the chief reason is because no one wants to spend any money (either taxes or private energy company profits) on maintaining existing infrastructure or building out excess capacity.

Essentially, we're coasting along on the infrastructure built in the 70s and 80s reaping all the money we can while we can. In heavily GOP Texas, I don't think anything can be done about it.

Posted by: EGrise | Sep 2 2011 16:49 utc | 15

Oh, goody. I can comment on something that I actually know something about.

The core problem with the electric infrastructure that we've got is two-fold:

First, it was mostly built between 1950 and 1980, and pretty much hasn't been upgraded since. It's breaking. Private electric utilities make more money running a marginal system than investing in a new one, so they do the absolute minimum necessary to keep it running...most of the time.

Second, the infrastructure that we've got is a relic of a century-long run where bigger was better. The next powerplant that you built was always going to be bigger, and deliver cheaper energy more reliably, than the one before. The push was towards a centralized, hierarchical system, culminating in the spectacular collapse of round one of commercial nuclear power.

That dynamic hit the wall in the 1970's.

Increasing scale and complexity started inducing unanticipated side effects that made the new plants more expensive, less reliable, and unable to operate safely unless embedded in a dynamic, complex system. For example, the scariest part of Fukishima is that it didn't matter that every reactor shut down normally. Without continuous access to power from the Japanese national grid, the reactors and spent fuel pools melted down anyway. It is a feature of essentially every commercial nuclear reactor on Earth.

Complexity meant more time to build, more chances of mistakes, and more sophisticated materials and construction practices. In a world that is running out of cheap resources, it is no longer the biggest and most complex projects that will be the cheapest. Electric power plant construction had overrun its economy of scale. The short story of the last thirty years of the US electrical system is that the power industry has been in denial of this fundamental fact, has no idea how to respond, and is thrashing.

Tomorrow's grid will have lots of smaller local generators, and fewer big centralized powerplants. Having a coordinated gird is actually a good thing, but it will be a lot more like a heterogeneous network than the top-down centralized hierarchy that we have today. The problem is that in that kind of configuration, you don't really need huge private utilities. Accordingly, huge private utilities are doing their level best to prevent this outcome.

Electric energy policy is generally about as exciting as watching paint dry. But there are trillions of dollars and a warming world on the table. It's worth paying attention.

In 1932, pretty much everyone in Europe had electricity. In the US, if you weren't near a city, chances were that you didn't. Your farm might have a tractor, but was otherwise little different that that same farm a century before. Universal access to electricity is a Very Good Thing, so I would quibble with your first point. But your second and third points are spot-on.

Posted by: converger | Sep 4 2011 1:06 utc | 16


"for an average output equivalent to a 1 GW power station, you need 500 sq km of wind farm"

are you sure you know what you're talking of? For a modern 3 MW turbine with a 90m blade diameter you would need a distance to the next turbine of ca. 7 blade diameter, i.e. an area of 32 ha. For a 2 GW = 2000 MW wind farm (at 30% full load compared to a normal average full load of 60% for a fossil power station) you need ca. 21.000 ha or 210 sqkm of land, the real footprint of the turbines incl. all infrastructure (foundations, roads, crane space, substations etc.) is not more than 1 - 2% of that area, the rest is being used as before for all sorts of farming. if you have any problems living near to such facilities come to South Africa's western and northern cape provinces where we just develop 1,5 GW (1500 MW) wind energy on 250 sqkm of leased commercial and communal farmers lands, you'll find very happy lessors because renewable energy gives them a second income in times when agricultural incomes are more and more decreasing.

Posted by: thomas | Sep 4 2011 20:48 utc | 17

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