A recent article in Technopolis connects the dots between the New York area blackout of August, the recent Italian electricity grid meltdown, and various other blackouts in Europe in between. The underlying problem? Privatization.

At the end of the day, while it may be easy to explain such occurrences on exceptional circumstances, be they freaks of nature or the will of God, there is no escaping the fact that the present predicament is the result of our doing, exacerbated by the process of globalisation. Our increased use of energy in conjunction with moves by governments to “privatise” or “liberalise” everything that once had belonged to a community or society as a whole has led to a dilapidation of public infrastructures.

Slashdot’s readers have been having a vigorous exchange about the pros and cons of the argument, and about what we can do about it all. It’s a good example of why Slashdot is worth reading, if you set your filter high enough. Whatever the cause, blackouts are disruptive at best– anyone who wants to see just how disruptive should check out the Blackout History Project, an online archive on the New York City blackouts of 1965 and 1977– and genuinely dangerous at worst. And they’re likely to get worse:

Whereas in the pre-digital days people were still able to go about their business during a blackout, albeit not very easily, it’s near impossible nowadays as simple over-the-counter transactions are all handled by “smart” machines and computers. And as everyone gets use to living in a “cashless” society, when the ATMs don’t work and your wallet is empty then you are really cashless.

There’s another possibility. Last year, Nature reported on some research that Oak Ridge scientists have done on the nature of power failures in the United States. Those scientists came up with the frightening conclusion that attempts to prevent blackouts were only making the problem worse. More specifically, they prevented smaller blackouts, while raising the odds of truly catastrophic failures:

Power grids are inherently prone to big blackouts, say US scientists. Trying
to make them more robust can make the problem worse.

There is a power cut every 13 days in the United States. Indeed, over the past 15 years, large-scale blackouts there have been more frequent than can be explained by random damage. So Benjamin Carreras of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and co-workers have devised mathematical models of a network of generators and consumers.

The models indicate that as soon as the demand for power exceeds a network’s total capacity, the only way the network can cope is by ‘load shedding’. In other words, when everyone switches on their washing machines at the same time, or when a storm breaks a local line, a partial blackout is inevitable.

At first, the extent of the blackout increases steadily as the demand rises. Then, as power demand shifts onto generators that are still working, this can overload other transmission lines, causing a sudden avalanche of load shedding as many lines fail. Carreras’ team reckons that the eventual large-scale breakdown looks like what physicists call a ‘critical point’.

Countries that are less developed than the United States, Carreras points out, typically suffer many small blackouts, but rarely incur big ones. In effect, the tension in the network gets released in many small jolts rather than a big paroxysm.

If this is so, then the whole effort to build large, foolproof grids may be a fool’s errand: the goal is unattainable, and the costs of failure can be tremendous. But there are no really viable alternatives for the advanced world– yet.

Update, 10:38 pm: Slate has a roundup of coverage of the recent Italian blackout.

[via slashdot]