Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Coming Power Outage

With temperatures soaring in the South and Northeast and more of the same coming to the Midwest, rolling brownouts and blackouts are to be expected.

(These comments are edited from an original post to Michael Stuart Kelly’s “Objectivist Living” discussion board.  MSK posted a note that he was unable to manage the board temporarily, as his neighborhood near Chicago suffered a power outage.)

‘Baal Chatzaf' wrote: “I have been pushing for years to build a fleet of breeder reactors ...” This is the technocratic fallacy, the idea that any problem, no matter how big or small, localized or pervasive, exceptional or systemic, needs only an engineering fix. It is generally true – if not axiomatic – that any perceived “problem” if it is, indeed, something that can and should be remedied, is only a market inefficiency wanting entrepreneurship. 

Ba'al Chatzaf attemped to give his plan an escape route, but only begged the question: “... power outages would be virtually eliminated except in cases of storms and other disasters.”  Yet, that is the problem, is it not?  It is not that no one knows how to produce enough electricity, but rather that the system is not resilient (redundant) against failures.  What is a “storm” or a “disaster”?  These are just failure modes that can be predicted.  In the Midwest, we have tornado season; in Florida, they have hurricanes.  Every winter the temperature drops below freezing; the “Blue Northern” brings ice storms.  Every summer, temperatures soar; everyone wants to be cool at the same time.  These are predictable events.  In fact, any year when they did not occur would be notable.

Power lines need not come down.  In urban areas especially, they are underground, not overhead.  Substations can isolate transient failures and power can be rerouted.  Electricity can come from a variety of sources by an array of modes.  And electricity is not the only energy source.  

One difference between the failures of summer and winter is that in the winter, we heat with natural gas and even wood.  I don’t know what a coal-burning air conditioner would look like, but there are many ways to cool a home or a high rise office building.

How often have you parked, fuel tank empty, in front of the closest gas station, waiting unpredictable hours for it to open?  How many times did you call off Thanksgiving Dinner because you were short half a pint of heavy cream?  One time, I was in New York City when the sole of my shoe split and I actually had to shuffle two city blocks to find a shoe store.  The essential factor in those cases was the lack of a regulatory agency approving everyone’s plans for production and distribution.

But it was not always so.  Detroit Edison was founded in 1903.  “There was no higher goal for a young American male to pursue during this period than to be a ‘self-made man’—to make a great deal of money through dint of his own hard work and ‘pluck.’” (“Entrepreneurship in the United States, 1865–1920,” by Naomi R. Lamoreaux in The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times. Edited by David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr, & William J. Baumol. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.)

Thomas Edison lost his famous wars against Tesla and Westinghouse.  But that is exactly the point: he could lose; and did.  Now, the inheritor, DTE Energy, cannot lose because they have no competition.  Thus, progress has stopped; and we are sliding back, literally, into a darker age.

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