The New Insanity
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.
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.