The California Blackout And The Failure of Fail-Safe Energy

Thursday night my Twitter feed lit up with posts about a sudden blackout in San Diego. Apparently an error regarding a repair job by an electrical worker in Arizona led to a series of shutdowns that affected somewhere around four or six million people across California and Arizona. Many people were wondering how a single error in one place could lead to power problems of such a magnitude. Most intriguing to me were statements in news articles such as, “the safeguards that typically prevent an outage from spreading didn’t work.”

This eerily reminded me of coverage of last year’s BP oil spill with its “sequence of failures,” and this spring’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and its “failure of multiple back-up electrical systems.” The good news in this case is that, unlike the other incidents, the situation is not deteriorating and it looks like power is being restored. But all three incidents involved the failures of multiple systems that led to large negative outcomes which were supposed to be impossible. All three incidents also had to do with energy sources – from the private sector – and the failures spanned private energy companies in Britain, Japan, and the United States.

It’s a disturbing trend, to be sure. I’m sure progressive technocrats would say these energy companies need to be more heavily regulated (indeed, “Federal regulators” are going to “investigate” this latest incident), and I’m sure small-government types would respond that government is already heavily involved in the energy sector and that more involvement would only drive up energy costs without preventing any more disasters than they are preventing now. This may be true, but it’s also clear that any built-in incentives on the part of companies to prevent such disasters are failing as well.

A while ago my friend Homer Smith tweeted a link to an article about surviving on sustainable self-powered energy, and one of the commenters claimed that an electrical engineering friend claimed that “every single day that the [electrical power] grid doesn’t collapse is a marvel of modern engineering.” I have no idea whether or not that’s just empty third-hand information from the Internet, and I generally take the day-to-day reliability of the grid as evidence against such claims. But I am reminded of such claims about the vulnerability of the power grid when sudden blackouts affect millions of people despite failures of multiple safeguards. The Southwest blackout is merely the latest in a long historical line of power failures, and while it did not affect nearly as many people as the Northeast blackout of 2003, the incident is still powerful enough that it increases to me the value of being able to produce my own energy, or survive “off the grid.”

Self-energy is often viewed as a “green” thing (solar panels are one of the first things that come to my mind, at least), but it can be as “dirty” as a gas-powered generator or as “clean” as a hand-crank. There are many possibilities of different costs and types of effectiveness, and I don’t know very much about a whole lot of them, but I’m beginning to place more value on trying to learn more about them as I begin to see more value in decreasing my reliance on the power grid. In fact this is very much a natural capitalist response: I am becoming less satisfied with the product I am purchasing from my electric company (due to a decreased expectation of future performance), so I am thinking about seeking alternatives so that I no longer have a need for their product. At this point my expectations are still enough that I’m not really doing anything to change my way of life, and am merely thinking about trying to learn more about self-energy. But if the power grid reveals itself to be more unstable in the future, its value might change enough to spur my ideas into action.

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