Towering Design Flaws

Real cause of 2003 blackout is overcentralized power grid, writes Amory Lovins

Published: 22-Aug-2003

The usual suspects -- politicians, regulators, deregulators, utilities, and environmentalists -- were promptly rounded up when the Aug. 14 blackout lost 61 billion watts of capacity in nine seconds. Yet the real culprit was none of the above -- just as in 1965, 1977, and other regional blackouts that I described in a 1981 report for the Pentagon, 'Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security'.

The real cause is the overcentralized power grid. Its giant machines spin in exact synchrony across half a continent, co-ordinated by frail aerial arteries and continuous, precise technical controls. Usually, it works well. But every few years by mishap, or anytime by malice, it can fail catastrophically.

A fixed-wing aircraft can glide to a safe landing without engines, but without instantaneous active control and a tail rotor, a helicopter drops like a stone. The grid is more like a helicopter. Seeing this demonstrated may inspire terrorists to make it happen more often.

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