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The Day The Magic Stopped
How the blackout happened.


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Back in 2001, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney mapped out their vision for America’s energy future in the National Energy Policy Report (NEPR). At the time, Vice President Cheney said:

Transmission grids stand in need of repair, upgrading, and expansion. If we put these connections in place, we’ll go a long way toward avoiding blackouts.

We all know what happened last week, so there’s no point in rehashing the details. The NEPR is destined to become another “hindsight” publication, like the Hart-Rudman report in early 2001 on the threat of terrorism that said:

The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack. A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century.

We all know what happened nine months later. Who knows, maybe 2001 was a particularly good year for prescient government reports (maybe we ought to go back and find out what other government warnings were issued two years ago).

A little cynicism is to be expected in Washington, and sometimes can even be a good thing. But until last week, the Bush administration’s efforts to draw attention to the nation’s energy problems — and their proposed solutions — have been repeatedly belittled as little more than giveaways and favors to special interests.

At the time the Bush plan was unveiled, Democratic Senator Harry Reid said it was evidence that GOP now stood for “Gas, Oil and Petroleum” and others criticized calls for increased nuclear-power production and drilling in ANWR. Largely lost in the name calling was that the administration’s plan paid significant attention to infrastructure woes and called for replacing and upgrading transmission lines, the problem at the heart of last week’s blackout.

Is it possible the administration identified a significant problem — inadequate supply-and-transmission technology and infrastructure for what has been steadily rising demand — and genuinely attempted to do something about it?

Since the administration’s efforts began, others have turned their attention to dealing with energy issues. Just not the problems the administration outlined in detail.

Indeed, it’s fitting that New York was the geographic heart of the blackout. On April 25, 2003, Governor George Pataki of New York announced that he had invited governors from New England the mid-Atlantic states to join in a regional “cap-and-trade” plan — a mini Kyoto — to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide in the electricity generating sector.

Perhaps now Governor Pataki sees that there are significant, albeit quite different, problems with power generation. Instead of worrying about the emissions of CO2, he and other governors have to worry about the immediate problem of the actual emission of electricity itself, and whether or not New Yorkers can rely upon it.

So in some ways the blackout last week might prove a blessing. Arthur C. Clarke once famously quipped that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That has certainly been the case with electricity and the underlying grid. Until last week, few people ever actually stopped to consider the marvel of the engineering and technological infrastructure that enabled power at the flick of a switch. Turning on the lights in the morning was routine magic — it just happened.

But it’s now evident that it’s not magic. And that our electricity infrastructure is not sufficiently advanced to meet the nation’s needs. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that upgrading the grid to meet current and future demand could cost on the order of $50 and $100 billion dollars. But with our technological magic tricks now partly revealed and better understood, perhaps we can put aside ad hominem attacks on the administration’s energy initiatives, put aside distractions and side issues such as a regional Kyoto protocol, and fix the grid. As the president put it in 2001, “If we fail to act, this country could face a darker future.” Turns out, he was right.

Nick Schulz is editor of Tech Central Station.



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