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Electricity Apocalypse Soon? 576

Posted by timothy
from the power's-on-in-galt's-gulch dept.
mindriot writes "Heise's awarded online magazine Telepolis has published a nice article (English / German) discussing the ongoing series of power blackouts (after the U.S. blackout, London, Scandinavia, and other incidents, the most recent victim being Italy). 'The blackouts bare the Achilles Heel of our "information society" ,' the article states, and sees the recent events as a precursor to a possible massive on-line blackout. As society becomes more and more dependent on information and power networks, the failure of a single wire or the interruption of a satellite uplink can become a major issue and form a great vulnerability. As the article explains, market liberalization, globalization and plain ignorance could endanger our infrastructure to a very discomforting extent." Free markets cause power blackouts?
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Electricity Apocalypse Soon?

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  • So... (Score:2, Funny)

    by The Ancients (626689)
    We use Morse Code by candle light. What's your problem?
    • Re:So... (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:28AM (#7092059)
      In Soviet Russia, blackouts cause FREE MARKETS!
      • In Soviet Russia, blackouts cause CHILDREN!

        Just like everywhere else...

      • Re:So... (Score:3, Funny)

        by Sri Lumpa (147664)
        "In Soviet Russia, blackouts cause FREE MARKETS!"

        Are you advancing a theory whereby the failing of the soviet electrical infrastructure was the direct cause of the fall of the soviet political infrastructure, thus leading to a capitalistic infrastructure and therefore free markets, or are you just making a dumbass Soviet Russia joke? ...
        Yeah, thought so.
  • Time to start hording lemons, pennies, and dimes! [ushistory.org]
  • Yupper (Score:2, Funny)

    by CGP314 (672613)
    The blackouts bare the Achilles Heel of our our "information society"

    You better believe it! As soon as the power goes out and I can't post on slashdot [slashdot.org] or update my blog [colingregorypalmer.net] my social life is over!
    • Re:Yupper (Score:3, Insightful)

      by The Ancients (626689)
      Slashdot and your blog are your social life? In that case I think maybe blackouts are the least of your worries...
  • I predict a big increase in sales of small generators. Quite a lot of people already have them in the countryside here in the UK (where powercuts are fairly frequent due to falling trees etc, and it takes longer to fix them because of their remoteness). An unfortunate side effect can be a choking diesel fog during a long powercut!

    Still, what's the good of a home generator, Mr Anderson, if you're unable to find an ISP that works?

  • by Ricin (236107) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:30AM (#7092065)
    No, but greed, incompetence, short term thinking, and the outsourcing of everything does. Having no real authorities to answer to surely helps as well.

    As a bonus it will get more expensive also, aren't we lucky :)

    IMHO the privatizing of utilities such as electricity is *not* a matter of consumers' interests and not even a matter of producers' interests really. It's ideology. Religion if you like.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      No, but greed, incompetence, short term thinking, and the outsourcing of everything does. Having no real authorities to answer to surely helps as well.

      Some would argue that a free market leads to all those things (maybe not incompetence, that's everywhere). So, perhaps free markets do cause power blackouts, if indirectly.

      • Not to mention that it's not a free (as in access) market at all. It's merely the old state/regional utilities in consortia under different names. They basically just re-divided the pie. At least here in Europe. Same with the telcos.
    • And we're really fUX0red when natural gas runs out (probably within 20 years in the UK). Virtually all new power generation for the last 15 years has been gas, because the accountants like the short payback period and it helps meet the Kyoto targets because it produces less CO2 per kWh. Of course, if you want to introduce a bit of politics, Thatcher's obsession with crushing the British coal miners also had a lot to do with it.
    • IMHO the privatizing of utilities such as electricity is *not* a matter of consumers' interests and not even a matter of producers' interests really. It's ideology. Religion if you like.

      Spoken like a true ideologue.
  • Basically, yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Moderation abuser (184013) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:33AM (#7092080)
    "Free markets cause power blackouts?"

    The free market tries to make money out of the infrastructure this means low maintenance, low investment. It's a recipe for blackouts.

    Can't say we weren't warned though.

    • Re:Basically, yes. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Shorthouse (665038) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:51AM (#7092148)
      It's been coming for a long time.
      When I worked for the local "Electricity Board" here in the UK, we had some 20 linesmen almost permanently employed cutting and trimming trees which threatened the overhead lines. There were still faults but these usually only occurred in extreme weather conditions.
      Nowadays I hear there are just 2 staff allocated to tree cutting in our region - and one of those is the supervising engineer......

      PS. Checking an old bill, I find that I pay the same per month now as I did almost 5 years ago.
    • Re:Basically, yes. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by WeaponOfChoice (615003) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:14AM (#7092220) Homepage
      Traditionally the free market has made money out of the infrastructure by eliminating excess capacity and cutting back on "excessive" maintenance.
      All comes apart when that excess is needed due to a failure elsewhere in in the grid...
    • Re:Basically, yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:21AM (#7092246)
      .... and even better, once there ARE blackouts, the companies are able to convince it's customers that because electricity scarce, it should cost more.

      So, you stop paying for maintenance, and get to raise prices. Isn't that precious?

      steve
    • Whereas... government organisations like, oh I don't know, NASA, are immune to cost-cutting, safety breaches and the risk of catastrophic failure...
    • Basically: No (Score:3, Interesting)

      by JaredOfEuropa (526365)
      In California, consumer prices for electricity were fixed by the state, while supplier prices were left to the market. When there was a shortage of energy, the energy companies in the middle were forced to sell electricity at a loss. Surprise: they cnnot keep that up for very long. That is not a free market

      If you get crappy service, you take your business elsewhere, right? If you rent a car, but you find it breaks down all the time because the rental company skimps on maintenance, you go to a differe
  • Did the NYC blackout ruin everything? no, they fixed it, will patch the system and move on.

    Was it regrettable? yes

    Did it endanger our infrastructure? please.

    People only 100 miles away from the blackout's edge lived their days normally.

    As for "the interruption of a satellite" becoming a major issue, I fail to see how this is becomming a problem. It happened about a week ago didn't it? I'm still here. I could still buy food that morning.

    In fact, this article is just flat out wrong. As our global inf
    • It is fearmongering, you are right, but do not be so naive to discount it at face value.

      That food you bought in the grocery store. It was fresh. It probably had to be ordered from a market.

      If the phones ('the net') go down for a week, maybe two ... then how will orders be placed?

      Give this information-addicted society 4 weeks of nothing - i.e., the grid goes down - and what will things be like when it comes back up again? The scenario wherein a massive population is without power for weeks on end is no
      • by Sri Lumpa (147664) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @07:00AM (#7092352) Homepage

        Being prepared helps an awful lot.

        In 1990 we had two weeks with roads blocked and blackouts in many parts of France due to heavy snowfalls (1 meter where I lived) but given that the part where I live is used to snow we didn't have any major problem (a few generators made the rounds to keep the freezers cold enough); we used candles and made our own butter (the cows have to be milked daily to avoid getting them sick but there was no electricity to keep the milk turning so the cream came to the top and we made butter the old fashioned way) and lived a lot like they did in the past and rather enjoyed it (especially given that we got two weeks free of school ;)) even though we wouldn't want to live all our lives that way. Other parts of France were not hit as hard but had more problems because they weren't used to this kind of weather at all and didn't have the equipment or the experience to deal with it.

        Shit happens, you just have to be plan for it as much as reasonably possible and be psychologically prepared and try to enjoy it as a rare experience rather than panic and mess things even further.
  • NIMBY (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cperciva (102828) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:35AM (#7092085) Homepage
    All these recent failures have been the fault of transmission systems, not the fault of generation systems. Electrical grids are carrying ever-increasing amounts of power around, but haven't been upgraded for many years; it was inevitable that we would start to see problems with the grid becoming overloaded.

    The problem is simply one of NIMBY. We need to build more transmission lines, but nobody wants the lines in *their* backyard. It's going to give them brain cancer; give their children leukemia; impede their views; reduce the value of their homes; destroy the last known habitat of the seven-toed porcupine.

    Sometimes I really wonder if democracy is a good idea.
    • Power Generation (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Detritus (11846) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @08:17AM (#7092761) Homepage
      The lack of new power generating facilities is also a factor. Ideally, power generation would be geographically close to its load. Due to NIMBY, it doesn't get built or it gets built "somewhere else", exporting the pollution and problems to someone else's backyard. This has led to increasing amounts of power being transported across the grid, from regions with surplus capacity to regions with permanent deficits in power generation.
      • by bluGill (862)

        No, ideally power plants would be built close to the fuel. Transmission line losses over a high voltage line are small. What is the energy loss to transport a train load of coal from a mine (coal isn't found everywhere you know) to the power plant. How about the cost to pump gas (somewhat self flowing, but they still have to pump it at times) from the well to the power plant? High voltage elecrisity is a good cheap low loss way to transport energy.

        The best way to transport electrisity is DC, so you

  • Deepness in the Sky (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Shillo (64681) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:36AM (#7092088)
    (if you haven't read Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky, do so now ;) )

    It's really funny how the end-of-civilisation scenarios mentioned in the book become reality. In particular, this is a case of his over-efficiency scenario: as the automation and control systems become more efficient, the margin for error gets narrower, until even a minor glitch can escalate to affect a large proportion of the planet. This happens in part because no single person fully understands the structure of the control mechanisms, so the catastrophic scenarios can't be predicted.

    (the other scenario I remembered was ubiquitous law enforcement. Things like RFID tags, smart dust, and ubiquitous surveilance are all becoming possible)

    That said, I don't think we're going to have the end of the world. But there will have to be some fundamental changes in the way we design and use the technology.

    --
  • by SystematicPsycho (456042) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:37AM (#7092089)
    Damn, blackout, what can I do? I know I'll play some games, oh no wait, hrmm, I'll work on that code, oh, hrmmm, hrmmm, I'll read my mail, doh .. holy crap there is nothing to do :O
  • Of course. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:37AM (#7092090)
    Free markets cause power blackouts?

    Of course. Free markets seek to maximize profits. In a sector where the barriers to entry are quite high, companies are much more able to increase price by lowering demand. It's one thing if the product in question is a luxury item, it's entirely another if it's an absolute necessity.

    To put it more simply, they can charge us more money for the same amount of electricity if electricity is seen as something scarce. If electricity is seen as something that there is an abundance of, then they can't charge us as much.

    Speaking of "Free Markets" in the sense of electricity isn't quite the same as speaking of free markets in terms of something like, say, cabbage. In my city of 0.5 million people, there are at least 0.4 million people capable of producing and selling cabbage. So, if the price of cabbage went up dramatically, you'd see people planting cabbage and selling it at lower prices. The barriers to entry (seed, land, water) are very common and cheap. Competition works for the consumers.

    Now, if Scottish Power, which owns the local electric monopoly (company) were allowed to do what they wish with prices, of course they'd jack them up. But purchasing a large generator, becoming a public utility, going through the red-tape, putting up bonds, etc. is a long, expensive, and difficult process. In other words, the barriers to entry are much higher, so far, far fewer people would be able to provide an alternative to Scottish Power. That means, of course, that while it's not a true monopoly, Scottish power would have the ability to squeeze more money out of us for no other reason that "We can, so we will."

    When options and alternatives are available, competition from free markets works. However, until sufficient options and alternatives exist to create competition, a deregulated market is essentially a government-created monopoly. ("You have no competitors, and provide an essential service? Well, then, feel free to rake the serfs over the coals at your leisure.")

    steve
    • by ahfoo (223186) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:33AM (#7092269) Journal
      At least in the electricity market this is clearly a problem.
      It has long been accepted and promoted by internationally minded people within the electrical utilities that power could be shared internationally in a global HVDC grid that would be both technically and economically superior to the primitive, isolated systems that predominate today.
      The obstacles have nothing to do with technical or efficiency problems. Quite the contrary, the proposed system would be technically superior in the sense of being less prone to blackouts and without a doubt would lower electricity prices globally.
      The problems arise when some countries have a slavish, not conicidentally religous fervor for "free markets" while others take a progressive attitude. This leads to a form of international competition that is not productive at all in the sense of the over-used market metaphor. This is highly destructive competion of the cold war sort in which destruction of the "enemy" at all costs displaces the goal of efficiency.
  • by Numen (244707)
    The London blackout was rather misleadingly reported piece in the news in general, including the English news.

    It was a power failure on a significant part of the London Underground (the underground train system).

    The article furthers this misconception by compairing the London blackout the the blacking out of the US Eastern seaboard, which borders on the sensational. At no point does it tell you what actually blacked out.

    Blackouts like the one that occured in Italy, and I *think*, but could well be wrong,
    • by Shimbo (100005) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:56AM (#7092161)
      The London Underground blackout has nothing to do with this, it was a failure of part of a utility service, and was contained within that utility.

      I don't know where you got that idea from but it's completely wrong. London Underground ran their own power plant for nearly 100 years before they closed it last year [tfl.gov.uk] and went onto mains power. Bad (or unlucky) call. The report on the power failure [nationalgrid.com] is instructive reading on how a combination of circumstances can break what should have been a quadruply redundant system.

      It annoyed the hell out of me that even here in London they reported a "London Blackout!" over the top of footage of a brightly lit evening street focusing on an entrance to a tube station (lit) with a flashing emergency sign (powered by electric not hampster power).

      Sure, they don't have many feeds into the Tube power supply, so there were areas of London with power but no Underground trains. And once you've decided to evacuate, you can't switch the power back on without electrocuting a few commuters. You have to cold restart by clearing the whole system.

    • Moderators, please check facts before moderating. I can assure you that the London blackout was not a caused by or confined to the London Underground. It covered most of South London, plus the entire Underground system. Moreover the blackout happened at rush hour and on a system carrying nearly 6 million people a day, that results in a lot of people stuck underground in darkness.

      No, it wasn't on the same scale as the US and Italy blackouts but the reason for that is largely because the UK's infrastructure
  • Think again.. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by adeyadey (678765) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:41AM (#7092108) Journal

    It strikes me that national power systems often have dangerous reliance on a small number of big power-providers - large coal/gas/oil/nuclear stations, with electricity imported/transported down a few very large critical power lines. Alternative energy may provide a solution, because by its nature it needs a higher level of redundancy and a more intelligent and distributed power supply model. And its good for the planet too.. Wind energy [bwea.com] has really started to prove its use here in the UK, and is set to take off in the USA too [awea.org]. In the UK we should have 20% of national power from the Wind by 2020, and we have the offshore sites to get 100% eventually if we wanted. Add to that Solar, Tidal, etc.. Because of the very nature of these resources local/national distribution must be better, and include mechanisms to regulate in the case of a drop in power..

    Oh, and what do you do when you have excess production? Turn the electricity into Hydrogen for your cars!

  • Lack of redundancy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by grahamlee (522375) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `geelmai'> on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:41AM (#7092110) Homepage Journal

    The problem with the London blackout was a lack of redundant generating/distributing structure. Ironically, Transport for London had only very recently had a large ceremony in which they switched off the generator that had been powering the Tube, DLR, etc. These train networks were switched over to the national grid. Because of this, when two small (and easily repairable) failures in the distribution network occurred and the Grid provision to London and the south-east was interrupted, the trains and stations were rendered inactive. Only recently they would have been able to carry on unaffected thanks to their own generator, which the Mayor of London (Red Ken Livingstone) had insisted should continue suplying TfL.

    So is a free market to blame? The problem here was a lack of redundant equipment, which was definitely a cost-saving exercise. But whether the costs are reduced in order to increase profit, or in order to reduce the tax burden, is insignificant in context. So no, in the case of the London blackout a free market wasn't the cause of the problems.

  • A true free market should respond to consumer needs. So - if it costs 10x more to provide failure free power and consumers don't want to pay 10x, they will not get it. Similarly, companies that are power dependant would pay more and get more reliability.

    A shared infrastructure may make it hard to deliver differing levels of reliability - which is where a central body (government usually) comes in and specifies the requirements.

    In most cases, the government has simply demanded low cost electricity provis
    • A true free market should respond to consumer needs. So - if it costs 10x more to provide failure free power and consumers don't want to pay 10x, they will not get it. Similarly, companies that are power dependant would pay more and get more reliability.

      "should" and "do" are entirely different things. If it costs 1.25x more to provide reliable power, and electrical companies want to charge 5x more, then they use whatever legal (and often illegal) means to give the illusion that it's necessary to pay 5x
  • Is it just me? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pubjames (468013) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:45AM (#7092121)
    Is it just me or is there something really weird about all the blackouts this year?

    Why is it that many of these countries have not had significant blackouts for years, decades even, and then they all have signigicant blackouts within the same six month period?

    Personally I find it really hard to believe that, for instance, a falling tree branch somewhere in the mountains managed to down just the right powerline to cause a blackout in the whole of Italy. It just doesn't ring true to me. This is critical infrastructure for christsakes! Governments know where the weaknesses are and have all kinds of plans in place to prevent this type of thing happening in case of war. (My father used to be on some of the comittees that put these plans together in the UK. They know where the weaknesses in infrastructure are.)

    So I find it really difficult to believe that there have been small incidents that just so happened to have hit the critical spot to take out large sections of the powergrids in a number of different countries all within a few months. Somethings going on here. What is it? I can only speculate:

    1) These are actually well planned terrorist attacks which are hushed up because politically Bush/Blair etc. need to be seen to be "winning the war on terrorism", and so we the general public don't get to know about them. (Notice that the blackouts affected NY, London and Italy - all of which supported the Iraq war?)

    2) There is some kind of power (pun not intended) game going on between different governments.

    3) The utility companies are doing this on purpose in order to get more tax dollars invested in their industries.

    (Some people are going to respond that I am paranoid and need a tinfoil hat. You might be right. But personally I think the current mentality of completely dismissing offhand anything that suggests governments or corporations can act in an underhand manner on a coordinated scale is unhealthy - these things should get discussed, otherwise people in power will start to think they can get away with crazy things just because nobody would believe they would do it!)
    • Re:Is it just me? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:50AM (#7092140)
      Why is it that many of these countries have not had significant blackouts for years, decades even, and then they all have signigicant blackouts within the same six month period?

      Because when the tree fell in the woods, nobody was around to hear it. Power outtages are one of the currently "trendy" things to report on, so you hear about much more of them.

      Over the past several decades, the ability of the media to provide timely stories from farther away has greatly increased. Because of that, every glitzy, trendy subject can get far more coverage. When blackouts are the media's attention, you'll hear about plenty of them. When gun violence is their target, you'll hear about plenty of that.

      The bit is that most of these things really aren't happening any more frquently than usual (sometimes actually LESS frequently!), but because you hear so much about it, it gives you the impression that it happens much more often.

      Pick out a make, model, and color of car, and fixate your mind on it for a day or two. Suddenly, you will see far more of them on the road than you ever have before. There aren't really more of them, you just notice more of them.

      steve
      • Re:Is it just me? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by pubjames (468013) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:54AM (#7092156)
        Power outtages are one of the currently "trendy" things to report on, so you hear about much more of them.

        Oh come on. I agree that there are trends in news stories, but Italy had not had a power outage on this scale for decades, nor had London or the USA. These are getting reported because they are significant.
        • These are getting reported because they are significant.

          Let's not forget southern Sweden. The last time we had an incident on this scale was in the eighties. And we beefed up our distribution infrastructure as a result that time.

          Now, granted, this outage was rather 'unlucky' as such go, with two major unrelated outages in the same part of the country within minutes, while both the backups (sea cables to the continent) were down for maintainance.

          It could be argued that taking both of them down at the s

        • Re:Is it just me? (Score:3, Insightful)

          by NerveGas (168686)

          In the USA, I've seen several instances nearly an entire state was without power, and it never hit the national media, and was never really discussed afterwards.

          Large-area blackouts happen. They just hadn't happened in New York for a while.

          steve
        • Not true. Half of California was blacked out a couple years ago, apparently because some idiot dropped a wrench and caused a short circuit. The parent is right, they've been happening but you haven't been paying attention.
    • Re:Is it just me? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by neglige (641101) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:02AM (#7092182)
      [...] significant blackouts within the same six month period?

      My bet is on the weather this summer, at least here in Europe. Nuclear power plants had to reduce their energy output (some down to 50%) because the streams and rivers used for cooling the plant were too warm (max. temp is, iirc, 25 celsius). If a majority of the power plants had to do this, the total amount of power produced is reduced, increasing the chance for an outage...

      Overall, while harsh market conditions might create "inferior products", due to budget restraints, those failings put the company in a bad light. I guess the budget for the energy infrastructure will rise in the next years.
    • You left out

      4) the Grey Men's Mothership, buried for centuries beneath the antarctic ice cap, is powering up to send its invasion beacon back to the Home World. The ship's ion-magneto drive crystals are sucking electrical energy through and across the planetary leylines, and as foretold through the bible codes and Atlantean runes kept in that Bilderberg safe and passed down by centuries of Illuminati, even our tin-foil hats won't save us now, Sparky!

      Hey, could happen, right?
      • You left out [..] the Grey Men's Mothership [..] Hey, could happen, right?

        You are mocking me. Well, you know I was expecting it...

        Let me put the converse to you. Do you believe that it is impossible, or even highly improbable, that a government would hush-up something like a terrorist attack? If you do, go ahead and call me paranoid. I'll call you naive. Read some modern history books. You'd be suprised what governments are capable of.
        • Do you believe that it is impossible, or even highly improbable, that a government would hush-up something like a terrorist attack?

          Hush-up? I was pretty certain the government was going to accredit the recent US NorthEast blackout to terrorism REGARDLESS of the "real" reason. I think they think we could use a little bloodless terror attack to shock us out of complacency and re-focus pre-election attention onto terror threats and homeland security and away from economic issues.

          I am also virtually certai
          • I think they think we could use a little bloodless terror attack to shock us out of complacency and re-focus pre-election attention onto terror threats and homeland security and away from economic issues.

            You think so? I don't. I think if the blackout in the US NE was due to a terrorist attack it would be highly embarrassing to the government.
    • Agreed. If it had not been for the newworthy US blackout nobody would have even heard of all the others.
  • Shark Attacks! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Saint Stephen (19450) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:45AM (#7092122) Homepage Journal
    Remember the "Summer of the Shark Attacks" ?? i.e. Summer 2001....

    We tend to focus too much on the news of the moment. If we have a bunch of blackouts, all that will happen is we'll work real hard and turn the power back on.

    Although the sequence of blackouts is an odd coincidence. Mebbe somebody's playing a trick.
  • by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:46AM (#7092124)

    Every eocnomic and/or industrial revolution in the history of our planet has come about as a result of an increase in the ability to provide energy. That energy can be in the way of food (provide more workers), or it can be mechanical energy to perform tasks WITHOUT the workers. In either case, an increase of energy production and availability has spurred the revolution.

    So, if a country wanted to greatly increase it's industry and economy, it's not entirely unreasonable that looking for ways to provide as much power as possible at the lowest rates would be a great way to start out.

    Here's some more to think about: In prtty much all of those revolutions, the changes came from the bottom up, so to speak - the workers/merchants were the ones doing the innovating, and freedom to do so was a critically important ingredient for the recipe to work.

    In previous times, it wasn't very easy to get a monopoly on energy without stifling growth - once you completely controlled the food or other source of energy, the motivation to innovate was greatly stifled - people don't care about producing excesses of food if they know you'll just take it away. And if you didn't take control (left the market free), then there was plenty of competition in the markets of food, lumber, and other sources of energy.

    Today, however, things are different. Our energy sources (oil, electricity, natural gas, etc.), which allow us to use much greater amounts of energy, are also very easily monopolized because of distribution. If you own the oil/natural gas pipes, the electrical lines, or the phone lines, then it's awfully tough for someone to cut in on your profiteering racket. To do so takes a governmental mandate, and as we've seen in the telecom industry, at times even THAT isn't enough.

    steve
  • by ed__ (23481) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:50AM (#7092142) Journal
    and once we solve the overdependence on electricity, we can solve our overdependence on clean water, and air, and food, manufactured goods, raw materials, cheap labor, children in sweatshops, working poor, janitors, cars, fossil fuels, shoes, houses, silicon, land, ozone, the sun, and all that other stuff we are so dependent on.

    because god knows, dying in the electricity apocalypse would suck, but i'd rather go there than in the sewage apocolypse.

    thank you, good night.
  • utilities (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom (822) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:53AM (#7092152) Homepage Journal
    Free markets cause power blackouts?

    That was a rhetorical question, wasn't it? The picture is clear on all utilities: Privatisation has almost always had the same effect:

    * In the short run, prices plummet and more alternatives appear.
    * In the long run, after a low number of de-facto monopolists remain, prices rise and reliability and service go down

    Exceptions I know about are:

    * Some 2nd world countries that were forced to privatisation by the WTO, where the first step was skipped (water in south america, great topic)
    * A few 1st world countries who - so far - managed to keep competition going, usually by the dreaded government intervention against emerging monopolies.

    The problem is simple: As a government company, a utilities' purpose is to supply something to the people, be it water, power or phone service.
    As a commercial entity, its purpose is to make money for its stockholders. If regular blackouts increase your profits, we will see more of them. If firing half your service people, reducing maintainance costs and saving the R&D money for future developments rises the stock prices, that is what we will see to happen.

    Oh, sorry, have seen happening.
    • Exceptions I know about are:

      The exceptions are markets with low barriers of entry. When barriers to entry are low, competition abounds. The higher the barriers to entry, the less competition there is, and the more the market fits your description.

      steve
      • by Tom (822)
        Which utilities have low barriers of entry? Supplying a country with anything will always require considerable prior investments. Neither power, nor water, garbage, phone service, etc. is something you can start in your garage.
  • The society has enough spare resources to survive pretty harmlessly even quite long blackouts. And they don't mean serious problem. Simply - everything goes "on hook", it's a perfect excuse for not having your work done - and a real one. Simply - "time of stasis", all activities get stopped until the power is back on. Downtime gets forgiven, contracts get postponed, meetings made highly optional. It doesn't mean any real harm. Just a stop. (note, your competition gets stopped just as well :)

    And about the b
    • Yes, "society" will survive. However, individuals can be a different story. Every hot summer, good numbers of people die from the heat even when they HAVE power. Take the power away, and things get pretty bad. And in the winter, it can be nearly as bad.

      Also, small lapses in productivity can often be written off, but as for anything non-trivial, perhaps you should look more into the mechanics of what drives industry and economy. Guess what the driving factor is... energy!

      Sure, Poland survived with lon
    • Simply - "time of stasis", all activities get stopped until the power is back on...It doesn't mean any real harm.

      Speaking as someone who used to need a life-support machine, I'd say that opinion is a tad blase;, personally...

      OK, medical facilities will (or at least, should) have their own backups but those only last for so long. A blackout is bit more serious than somebody's work PC switching off.

      Cheers,
      Ian

  • Telepolis ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by belbo (11799) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @05:58AM (#7092166)
    ... is a left-wing, anti-American online magazine which derives its current popularity from being one of the main hubs for German 9/11 conspiracy-theorists (i.e. they more or less maintain that the U.S. government at least knew what was coming). See Just so you know who you are getting your information from ...
  • The fact that free market has been demonstrated to be succesful in most areas of economy is a generalization. The free market, just like any other economical method, is subject to human mistakes and misexpectations, even in a global scale (e.g. the Y2K issues). The free market only gives an advantage to the ones who make less mistakes and do more accurate predictions.

  • The problem is that these days, every power plant is interconnected to the 'grid'. All it takes is ONE poorly maintained utility to make the whole thing cascade fail like dominoes falling. That's what happened in August. One utility (a shit one in Ohio, who can't even keep their nuke plant properly maintained) threw the whole grid out of whack. Problem is, the whole system is VOLUNTARY. Except for power syncronization, there are really no reliability standards set by anyone. Thus, the grid becomes like a ch
  • by seldolivaw (179178) * <me@NOSPAM.seldo.com> on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:22AM (#7092248) Homepage
    Yes, we are critically reliant upon power networks, even more so as more and more of our commercial and even social life moves online. Yes, recent events have shown how vulnerable both of these are. But the author of the article trots out the traditional anti-globalization arguments to explain the problem: that focussing on profits instead of service levels leads to poor services. But likewise, in a regulated or monopolistic situation, lack of competition produces no incentive to improve service levels -- the energy industry in Italy is by no means a free market, yet they've just had the largest blackout in history.

    The real problem is in the design of networks. Information networks are designed to be fault-tolerant (famously but erroneously attributed to a desire to withstand nuclear attacks) -- multiple connections and a "mesh" network mean that if nodes break, traffic is routed elsewhere and the network continues to function. This works great, and there's no problem with it. But the problem is, humans don't build networks this way, and economics is against doing so.

    If you're buying a network connection, you buy it from the best provider available, which naturally means network connections become concentrated to a few suppliers, who in turn find economies of scale and provide lower prices, thus attracting more customers. Thus the economics of building networks naturally produces networks that have a few or even single points of failure: we noticed this on September 11th, when the knockout of the huge links through New York noticeably slowed transatlantic traffic, even to sites other than CNN and the other news sites that were being toasted by demand at that point. Centralisation is something that we naturally do because it's economically efficient, but centralisation leads to problems for networks.

    In the energy sector, things are even less flexible, because energy connections are a lot more expensive to set up and difficult to maintain than information links. The US powercut was caused by the cascading failure of a daisy-chain of power stations around the great lakes. Nobody would build an information network that way any more, but it's still the natural way to build a power network. Italy's powercut was caused by a huge reliance on foreign power, supplied by JUST TWO LINKS to France -- one fell over, instantly overloading the second and knocking it out too.

    Yes, we are critically reliant on these fragile networks. And yes, economic realities tend to cause these problems, but not because of privatization: it's simply because humans naturally tend to build poor networks, because those are cheaper -- no matter who pays the bills. To solve the problem, we need to pay more attention to networking theory when building all of our networks, and provide regulatory incentives to build better networks of both kinds.

    Or one day, a critical failure will cause a cascading catastrophe, and it will be nobody's fault. We built the network to fail that way.

  • The answer would seem to be local combined heating and power plants. These would burn organic matter segregated from domestic waste {in a pyrolysing process to reduce emissions of nasties}, and some of the surplus heat could be used for heating homes.

    However, Joe Moron, who is convinced that it's fine to dig up fossil fuels out of the ground to use for generating electricity {increasing atmospheric CO2 levels}, OK to dump energy-rich organic matter in landfill where it will decay into methane {which
  • Free markets? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by danila (69889) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:43AM (#7092297) Homepage
    Well, may be. In Soviet Union there have been no blackouts. The worst was when a block of houses, or a city district were cut off from the grid. I don't think there ever was a significant blackout in a major city. The reason? The best power distribution network in the world. A lot of redundancy as well as capacity to transmit power across the whole country. It was built to power the European part of the country with cheap hydro energy from Siberia and reliability was a cool side-effect.

    The energy industry was underinvested for more than 15 years now, but we still had no major blackouts (other than customers disconnected for not paying their bills). The United Energy System is being reformed now to make it attractive for investors. I don't know if the positive effect of much needed investment will be offset by poor reliability, but I hope that remaining government regulation and "traditions" of the industry will help us avoid freemarket-style blackouts.
  • by varjag (415848) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @06:53AM (#7092335)
    While free market and competition are usually good things, in some circumstances they result in suboptimal solutions. However, power distribution business is apt to emergence of monopolies, so while blackouts are extremely disturbing, in the end free market is perhaps more important there than reliability of supply.

    Technically, the Soviet power grid was very close to optimal design: decentralised network encompassing the whole country, efficient, built with ability to sustain major damage (large-scale war) in mind. However, with the fall of Soviet Union all infrastructure has ended with a handful of individuals, who now have a perfect monopoly and use it to enforce prices they want. The end result is often similar: public schools and hospitals are getting cut off because they can't afford electricity.
  • "Free" Markets (Score:3, Insightful)

    by garver (30881) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @07:37AM (#7092507)

    The problem is politicians don't understand free markets. If you want a company to do something, you have to motivate them with their balance sheet. Regulation, inspections, requirements, whatever don't work because they will always find a way to cut corners. That's their job, save money, increase profits. Duh.

    For electricity, if you real want to deregulate, do it right. First, if you want reliability, make the companies financially responsible for outages. If it hits them in the bottom line, they will invest the infrastructure, procedures, etc. to make sure the lights stay on.

    Second, you have to make sure it's not at all a monopoly. If it even smells like a monopoly, then you should remain regulated. It's pretty hard to make electricty a non-monopoly when there's only one line coming to my house. This means we really only have one distributor. Ever. As long as we have one, leave it regulated, state-owned, etc. and let the suppliers compete. This is coming from the biggest capitalist you are likely to meet. But without competition, capitalism doesn't work.

  • by gr8_phk (621180) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @09:11AM (#7093126)
    The power companies use a large blackout as reason to beg for government money to upgrade. They don't seem to have enough incentive to make the improvements on their own. What if they had to pay the customers for each hour/day/whatever they go without power? They'd argue that fines large enough to be a real incentive would bankrupt them. Speculation here, but let them go bankrupt. Take ALL the company stock and re-issue it while at the same time banning ALL the top management from running any company in the same business. That sounds harsh, but we're talking about critical infrastructure. I'm just thinking off the cuff here, just food for thought.
  • by Detritus (11846) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @09:21AM (#7093196) Homepage
    How about a tax on electrical power distribution? It would be proportional to the distance between the generating facility and the consumer. This would make it cost effective to invest in local generating capacity.
  • Nordpool = evil (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gspr (602968) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @09:26AM (#7093226)
    Here in Norway, we used to have the world's cheapest electricity. Then the electrical market was "freed" and connected with the rest of the Nordic countries through Nord Pool. Last winter our electricity prices grew something like ten-fold!
  • economics 101 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by why-is-it (318134) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @09:27AM (#7093233) Homepage Journal
    Free markets cause power blackouts?

    Not in and of themselves, but it s arguable that blackouts will be more prevalent under free market conditions than if the power supply and grid are regulated.

    The demand for eletricity is relatively inelastic. Regardless of price, we need to turn on the lights, run our refrigerators and cook our meals. Electricity is an unusual commodity insofar as once it is generated, it cannot be stored for future use. We have to use it or lose it.

    If the electricity market is operating under free market conditions, the power generator will be interested in producing only as much electricity as can be sold (as excess goes to immediately to waste) and wants to sell this power at the highest possible price.

    There is no virtue in over-supply as that serves to drive the prices down. If anything, the power generators will attempt to create artificial shortages in order to use the laws of supply and demand to their advantage. Hence the concept of "gaming" which we saw in California in which the power generating companies would temporarily take functional generating capacity offline in an attempt to drive up the price of power. The demand was relatively constant, and when the prices rose sufficiently high, the offline generators would be plugged back into the grid and the power companies would make a premium.

    Under ideal free market conditions, other investors would notice that the existing power companies were making out like bandits and invest in additional power generation utilities in hopes of getting a piece of that action. The demand curve is relatively constant, so as the supply increased, the price charged to consumers would ultimately decrease to something more reasonable. The reality is that it takes several years in order to go through the regulatory process to get approval to build a power generator. Rightly so, as it would not be appropriate to build nuclear generating plants just anywhwere, nor would it be acceptable to build dams for hydro-electric generators ad-hoc. So, it is simply not the case that other sources of power generation would show up in the short term to increase the supply (resulting in lower prices) in the short term. For all intents and purposes, electricity generation is a monopoly where there is little opportunity for competitors to enter the market place, and no incentive for existing manufacturers to increase the supply of electricity beyond a certain minimal level.

    Western society has progressed to the point where electrical power is no longer a luxury. It is an absolute necessity that is vital to our existence and economy. From that perspective it makes sense that power generation (and transmission) should be at the very least a heavily regulated monopoly where the existing operators are permitted a reasonable profit but are required to meet certain levels of service.

    Personally, I would prefer to see power generation and transmission run as not-for-profit ventures and the consumers should be charged on a cost-recovery basis.I do not think that for-profit enterprises would voluntarily invest in redundancy or the necessary capacity planning for the future. It is difficult to make a business case and calculate ROI for a project that may take 20 years to complete. It the private sector, many companies and investors are focused on the next quarter, and there is apparently no interest in the long-term for those day-traders.

    That's my $.02 and I experienced the blackout in North America earlier this summer first-hand, for whatever that is worth...
  • by billtom (126004) on Tuesday September 30, 2003 @09:50AM (#7093428)
    I think that an important point it that transmission and generation need to be treated differently (and separately). I'm all in favour of a free market in generation (with government regulation). But I think that governments should continue to run the transmission.

    The reasoning is simple: competition is good, monopolies are bad; if you can introduce competition, then do so; if you can't, then a government run monopoly is preferable to a private monopoly.

    Power generation can clearly be run as a competative free market. Not free from government regulation, mind you; but there's no need for governments to run power plants. And the regulation has to work both ways, including fighting against the NIMBY instincts of land owners.

    But for power transmission, on the other hand, it's very hard to have real competition. The barriers to entry (the start up capital of running lots of wires) are too high (generally. there are a few exceptions). So in that case, the government should run the distribution network (whether it's paid for out of general taxation or a user fee is another issue).

    The worst thing you can do is have the government contract out a monopoly to the private sector. This produces the worst of both worlds and allows people to negatively caricature free markets, even though it isn't a free market, just a private company operating a monopoly.

    There, problem solved. We've got free markets and we've got public ownership. Everyone's happy. Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.

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