The New Insanity

Bruce Falck | Sep 17, 2003

Last month, the electricity grid serving 50 million people in the Northeast and Canada collapsed, creating havoc as subway commuters walked miles to their dark homes, travelers were disgorged from hotels and forced to sleep on the street, grocery stores and restaurants dumped millions of dollars of spoiled food, and families were forced to boil water for fear of getting ill. Beyond personal inconveniences, economic losses have been estimated to be in the neighborhood of $6 billion.

So what went wrong, and what can we do about it? There is a common theme emerging from the Great Blackout of 2003: everyone agrees that the grid is antiquated, that the system for generating, monitoring and delivering electricity is broken, but no one can agree on how to solve the problem. There will be plenty of finger-pointing in the days ahead, and undoubtedly someone will take the blame for some event that triggered it all. However, focusing on these isolated events, though hopefully instructive, really misses the point.

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By this definition, the current approach in Washington to solving our energy problems – and specifically our need for reliable electricity – is quite literally insane.

In the days ahead, the energy companies and their apologists in the White House and on Capitol Hill will be calling for speedy approval of new power plant construction and relaxed environmental standards so that we can extract more coal and natural gas to feed those plants. Cynicism aside, how insane is that?

There will also be calls for upgrading the grid and laying new transmission lines. While some improvements are clearly needed, major changes will hit the NIMBY wall – not in my back yard. I want power, but don’t put one of those polluting power plants near my house. I understand your need for electricity, but don’t run one of those huge power lines through my community. More insanity.

As Einstein also observed, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." The answer is not to build more and bigger versions of the same systems that led to the blackout – and give rise to the understandable if selfish chorus of NIMBY. We don’t need more gigantic, remote power plants to feed a fragile grid, adding more large, single points of failure to the system. The solution requires a fresh approach that addresses and mitigates the underlying problems.

Fortunately there are simple answers that are readily available and can provide real relief. They are politically challenging, to be sure, but we need to call on our politicians to exhibit real leadership and treat this wake-up call with the seriousness it deserves – and we deserve. As it turns out, the timing couldn’t be better. Congress is set to take up a sweeping energy bill this month, providing lawmakers an opportunity to take bold steps that will break the insane cycle of doing the same failed thing over and over again.

  • First, stop arguing over giant power plants and adopt policies and programs that support distributed generation. By accelerating the installation of microturbines, solar systems and other on-site generating capability, businesses and homes will be able to supplement existing system capacity – particularly at peak hours where costs are highest and the grid is strained – and insulate themselves from outages in the process. Congress should demand the quick adoption of uniform national standards for connecting on-site generating systems to the grid, forbid utilities from penalizing customers for generating their own electricity, and require all utilities to allow net metering of both homes and businesses. Sadly, the old guard at many of the nation’s utilities is resisting these challenges to their central command-and-control systems, and they must be shown the light.

  • Second, take serious measures to encourage conservation and mandate efficiencies. In addition to providing financial incentives for conservation, the federal government can easily require that appliances, particularly air conditioners, meet higher efficiency standards.
  • And third, Congress needs to stand up to the special interests that have dominated this debate until now and reexamine federal energy subsidies. There are valid reasons for providing financial support to nascent industries at key moments in time. When a technology is new and costly, supporting its early adoption through tax breaks and direct subsidies allows promising products to develop enough of a following that they can make it on their own. Insanely, the exact opposite is happening. Every year, $40 billion of your tax dollars goes to the coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries with no justification other than political connections and high-paid lobbyists. These are largely mature, deregulated, market-based industries that provide ample rewards for investments in new infrastructure and production. It’s time to shift these funds to emerging technologies, particularly non-polluting, renewable energy systems, to increase their economic appeal and accelerate their adoption.

    Naïve? Perhaps. But unrealistic? Definitely not. It’s time to heed Einstein’s words and set ourselves on a smarter course defined by new thinking that will protect our economy and our lives from the insanity of future blackouts.

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    Dear Bruce, Your article is copy of many similar articles, only wording or paragrphs are changed. We would like to know something first hand or exclusive.
    Innovators have plenty of new ideas.---Ravinder Singh,


    There will be organizations who do not feel that they can wait for national or even regional solutions. Eventually they will realize that they need to be in an electrical "island" in which electrical load is balanced by electrical generation.

    The challenge for each organization that needs to protect its stakeholders against blackouts is to achieve first consistent definitions of their "island" as well as the loads and generation within that island.

    The island can always be established by disconnecting from "non-island" entitiies. The loads can always be reduced to those that stakeholders regard as vital. And, given advanced planning, generation can be provided to achieve service of the vital loads.

    Some organizations will defer facing reality and others will accept the challenge.

    Only the foolish will assume that we have had our last widespread blackout.

    Protection against the next one will not come cheaply for many organizations. But, not facing the issue is equivalent to accepting the adverse effects of the next blackout.

    One would expect that there will be many co-operative ventures to accomplish such protection. It is hard to circle one wagon.

    Take care,

    Bill Corcoran, Ph.D., P.E.
    Nuclear Safety Review Concepts
    "Saving lives, pain, assets, and careers through thoughtful inquire."

    When Einstein commented that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, he didn’t mean we were going to solve the nation’s energy crisis by putting a Honda generator in everyone’s back yard. All that does is rearrange the problem. The ongoing crisis that the power failure, the natural gas crises in 2000/2001 and again in 2002/2003, and the ongoing Gulf wars hint at, is one that will define history over the next 10 or more years. It will be this: “Continuos growth is incompatible with a finite resource base.”

    It doesn’t matter whether we are talking the number of cars on the road or number of air conditioners connected to the grid. Exponential growth leads to the obvious conclusion that eventually demand becomes unsustainable. In the same way we cannot pave the entire countryside with asphalt to alleviate congestion, (and even if we did eventually they’d just make more cars) we can’t put a power plant on every block to meet unlimited electricity demand.

    A move towards nuclear power (God forbid! Not one ounce of waste product resulting from nuclear power production has ever been permanently disposed of. We can’t just keep stacking it up forever!), coal or even renewable cannot possibly but delay the eventual day of reckoning: continuos economic and population growth must be abandoned in favor of a sustainable lifestyle. When Einstein talks solutions, although to my knowledge the closest he ever came to discussing this problem was to declare compound interest “the eighth wonder of the world”, but when talking solutions he meant redefining our whole mindset.

    Compound interest perplexed Einstein, I assume, because a simple bank account (not counting fees) with one dollar in it, would, through the miracle of compounding, eventually grow to such an amount as to exceed the supply of paper to print money, if given enough time. (Of course Einstein never heard of Greenspan!) In some ways that simple analogy can be extended to many of the problems the world faces today.

    Air conditioners make a great example. More efficient air conditioners cannot solve the problem. Let’s say someone managed to increase the efficiency of all air conditioners by even 50% (a huge leap, probably thermodynamically impossible). Further, assume that the installed base of air conditioners grew at no more than 3%/year (to keep it approximately consistent with GDP expectations). Within 25 years we would be right back where we started, as the twice as many now twice as efficient air conditioners are using just as much power. 25 years is quite a delay, a lifetime even. If such things were technically possible, maybe we could transfer all the problems out to our children. Well, not all the problems, as I’ll be just getting ready to retire in my air conditioned condo in Nevada, so the price of air conditioning will be very important to me, 25 years hence.

    Einstein can’t really comment on such things as power grids. When he had his time to speak, he seemed to focus on things much less mundane. But if I were putting words in his mouth to interpret his great words, and apply them to power grids, I’d have him questioning whether continuously adjusting the temperature of the air is the best use of our precious resources. Perhaps we should adjust our perception of the value of air conditioners, instead. But that wouldn’t be considered progress, now, would it?

    It’s not the grid that needs to be rethought. It’s our fundamental values. We keep asking “How can we get more?” without ever answering the question “How much will be enough?” It then becomes a race with no finish, down a dead-end road.

    Bruce, I enjoyed reading your article and agree that we need some different thinking, but in the interim we also need more distributed generation, as well as more transmission lines. The time tested economies of scale argument breaks down in the face of transmission congestion and lack of reliable transmission capacity to deliver this energy efficiently to markets.

    In short, there is no one solution for the quandary in which we currently find ourselves regarding the reliable generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in the USA. We are working on the development of niche generation projects, near urban load centers, including repowering of Brownfield assets and cogeneration projects which add small incremental capacity additions in the 50 – 100 MW range. These small projects reduce emissions, both criteria pollutants and carbon dioxide, increase fuel utilization efficiencies and add ancillary benefits to local grids while helping to eliminate transmission congestion issues.

    We are working on an international project in the third world, where energy purchases from the grid are only available to commercial and industrial loads only if the purchaser has a capacity contract with a generating facility. This ensures that capacity is available to meet the system needs, eliminates the issue of supply demand imbalances and “overbuild” scenarios and generally smoothes out the beta in the supply demand equation. The generators are compensated for their investment based on the capacity payments and the fuel and VOM costs are essentially tolled to the pool on a merit dispatch basis. There is a lesson there and one that would help relieve the boom-bust cycles in the generation industry.

    We could stand to learn a lot from best practices in other jurisdictions, however the old way of thinking and the Not Invented Here (“NIH”) syndrome is alive and well in the USA. After all, how are we ever going to solve our current situation by thinking the way that we have always thought and doing what we have always done?

    Peter Besenovsky

    Bruce, my friend Peter Merholz generates a great deal of excess body heat, especially while sleeping or exercising. Is there any way to capture this energy and return it to the grid?