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Electricity Apocalypse Soon?

timothy posted more than 10 years ago | from the power's-on-in-galt's-gulch dept.

Technology 576

mindriot writes "Heise's awarded online magazine Telepolis has published a nice article (English / German) discussing the ongoing series of power blackouts (after the U.S. blackout, London, Scandinavia, and other incidents, the most recent victim being Italy). 'The blackouts bare the Achilles Heel of our "information society" ,' the article states, and sees the recent events as a precursor to a possible massive on-line blackout. As society becomes more and more dependent on information and power networks, the failure of a single wire or the interruption of a satellite uplink can become a major issue and form a great vulnerability. As the article explains, market liberalization, globalization and plain ignorance could endanger our infrastructure to a very discomforting extent." Free markets cause power blackouts?

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576 comments

So... (2, Funny)

The Ancients (626689) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092051)

We use Morse Code by candle light. What's your problem?

Re:So... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092059)

In Soviet Russia, blackouts cause FREE MARKETS!

Err, how about this... (1, Funny)

The Ancients (626689) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092067)

In Soviet Russia, blackouts cause CHILDREN!

Just like everywhere else...

Re:For some reason... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092103)

In blackouts, Soviet Russia causes CHILDREN!

Problem is that it's buggy. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092168)

Moths to be precise.

Electricity Apocalypse! (1)

CGP314 (672613) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092053)

Time to start hording lemons, pennies, and dimes! [ushistory.org]

Re:Electricity Apocalypse! (1)

Timesprout (579035) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092087)

Screw those. The experienced professional knows that for alleviating emergencies its important to train a team of wheel loving hamsters to power your hardware. Also keep your bongo drums in top condition to ensure you can get your daily fix of /.

Fun with Franklin? (-1)

SMOC (703423) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092102)

Regular batteries are very similar to your lemon battery

Except, regular batteries taste better, so use that sharp knife to cut them open and suck the lemony goodness from those Duracells.

Yes (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092055)

I fail it.... so fucking bad...

Important not to jump to conclusions (-1, Troll)

Dancin_Santa (265275) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092058)

The main problem with this type of report is that it wakes all the nuke power proponents out of their slumber. Next we'll be hearing calls for more nuclear power plants as a "solution" to the coming power crisis.

Power sources not reliant on fossil fuels is definitely needed as a clean alternative to current mainstream power production, but let's make sure the power is really clean before jumping on the bandwagon.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (1)

krymsin01 (700838) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092069)

What a lot of people don't think about when considering "clean" alternative energy sources is the environmental impact of the manufacturing OF the clean energy sources.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (4, Informative)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092104)

Exactly. There are plans afoot to build an array of wind turbines near my house, in the North-West of Scotland. We certainly have enough wind - AMEC (the contractors) put up a weather monitoring post, about 40' high. It blew over four times.


The thing is, each turbine (there will be 30 or so in total) requires a 400 cubic metre concrete foundation. Now, 1cu.m. of concrete weighs 7 tonnes. Making 1 tonne of concrete releases 1 tonne of carbon dioxide (damn slashcode, no >sub<tag). That means that casting each foundation will release 2,800 tonnes of CO2 (again, imagine the "2" subscripted), a total of 84,000 tonnes of CO2. That doesn't include the exhaust gases from the machinery used to dig the founds. And that's only for the founds, never mind the cast concrete masts that will be built.


Nuclear power isn't actually that dirty, you know. If fast breeder reactors were researched a little more, we'd have good, relatively clean, power stations. Although, at the moment, combined cycle gas turbines take the prize.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (1)

switched4OSX (668686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092127)

The power output of these windmill has to be conditioned, also. That would mean large battery cells, I would think. What about the environmental impact caused by the battery- they are usually made up of some noxious substances

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (1)

krymsin01 (700838) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092173)

Look up some of the chemicals [tohoku.ac.jp] that are used to produce solar cells. Just imagine how many people have bought solar cells that end up being thrown into landfills/etc, not to mention what the maker's have put there.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (3, Interesting)

grahamlee (522375) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092157)

I agree with your statement about the dirtiness of nuclear power. However, remember that suitable Uranium, Plutonium or whatever your particular reactor uses are in short supply just as fossil fuels are, though I think it's expected that nuclear fuel will last longer (on the order of centuries as opposed to decades for coal or oil - look out GWB! :-).

OTOH, I raise issue with your discussion of the CO2 emissions involved in erecting wind farms. I've been reading up about the construction of wind farms (they plan to build one in Portland Harbour - I live in Weymouth[*]) and accept the ~84Gg CO2 figure you give. Remember though, that wind farms only need to be built once during their career. Think of how much CO2 a coal-fired station - which has an efficiency of about 29%[@] puts out over its whole career, including constructing the huge concrete cooling towers. Wind still wins.

Also, wind farms are generally nicer-looking. Down in the West Country (and over in Holland, FWIW) they're minor tourist attractions.

[*]They're using a few big masts instead of a lot of small ones; the test station is 30m (~100ft) tall.

[@]Nuclear power stations are less efficient than this - about 23% - because of the complexity of handling the fuel after it's been used.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (2, Interesting)

spectecjr (31235) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092163)

Exactly. There are plans afoot to build an array of wind turbines near my house, in the North-West of Scotland. We certainly have enough wind - AMEC (the contractors) put up a weather monitoring post, about 40' high. It blew over four times.

The thing is, each turbine (there will be 30 or so in total) requires a 400 cubic metre concrete foundation. Now, 1cu.m. of concrete weighs 7 tonnes. Making 1 tonne of concrete releases 1 tonne of carbon dioxide (damn slashcode, no sub tag). That means that casting each foundation will release 2,800 tonnes of CO2 (again, imagine the "2" subscripted), a total of 84,000 tonnes of CO2. That doesn't include the exhaust gases from the machinery used to dig the founds. And that's only for the founds, never mind the cast concrete masts that will be built.


An important thing to note is that with wind turbines, there can be other problems too. Such as the fact that, for example, the beat frequencies from the wind farm's turbines can travel for hundreds of miles. (I heard of one such case in Washington state, but can't find a reference right now).

Nuclear isn't bad. Fusion, however, would be better :-)

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (1, Insightful)

anarchic_teapot (513830) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092070)

Reducing power consumption might be a good idea as well :)

I was going to say something witty about having to choose between the latest x86 processor and central heating, until I remembered that in my office at least that's already the case.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092254)

If we reduce our power consumption, the terrorists will have won.

Or something to that effect.

So, what do YOU propose? (-1, Flamebait)

Rhinobird (151521) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092079)

OK, Mr. no-nukes, what do you propose for a clean power source, that isn't dependant on fossil fuels?

Re:So, what do YOU propose? (2, Interesting)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092174)

Actually, the real problem is that generation systems are poorly utilized, or they are intermittent in nature.
What is needed is the ability to store energy during off times. A good example is useing Boeings idea of a heated salt-based sterling engine to store and generate electricity.
In fact, I would love to see small companies started up that has the sole approach of storing electricity generated at off-hours, which is normally charged at lesser rate. They would then release during the daytime at the higher rate. The difference being the business.
By starting businesses doing just this, we could stabilize the alternative energy and increase the power plants utilization.
Also, these would be able to be used in times of emergencies.

Re:So, what do YOU propose? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092184)

Do not use MS at nuke plants.

Do not allow Bush's friends at Enron to run plants.

Re:So, what do YOU propose? (1)

91degrees (207121) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092209)

Orbiting solar collectors beaming the energy down by microwave.

Never played Sim City?

Re:So, what do YOU propose? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092215)

There must be some way to convert the hot air generated by slashdot users into something useful.

Re:Important not to jump to conclusions (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092224)

Alright, then what do you propose?

Weather or not you like it, using nuclear energy is the only form of "clean" energy that is economically feasible. Sorry to say, but I don't think that we'll be seeing the area a size of New York covered in expensive solar panels (which contain dozens of toxic chemicals, cost a lot, and produce a lot of pollution when produced), or half of Texas covered in wind generators.

Nuclear energy != bad.

Certainly, you have some nuclear waste, but newer nuclear plants, or those in research, would actually produce much less waste then convential nuclear plants (especially breeder plants that can essentially reuse much of their waste). Not to mention, nuclear power plants are not dangerous when constructed and maintained properly. Remember Three Miles Islands? Most people harp on that as a reason why we should not have nuclear energy. Even when half of the core melted, very little radiation was actually released. That's why they build gigantic containment structures around the core. Chernoyble != western power plants.

If you want to read more, you can check out the ten deceptions of nuclear energy site (http://www.thenewagesite.com/jjdewey/deceptions/1 .php)

Anyway, the real problem here isn't how much energy we produce, which means this post is kind of off topic. It's more about how the grid is intereliant, and if one thing fucks up, then everything does.

-Ethernal

Yupper (2, Funny)

CGP314 (672613) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092061)

The blackouts bare the Achilles Heel of our our "information society"

You better believe it! As soon as the power goes out and I can't post on slashdot [slashdot.org] or update my blog [colingregorypalmer.net] my social life is over!

Re:Yupper (2, Insightful)

The Ancients (626689) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092137)

Slashdot and your blog are your social life? In that case I think maybe blackouts are the least of your worries...

Re:Yupper (1)

CGP314 (672613) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092164)

Well that post should have been modded +1 funny not +1 insightful. I must say, that I am a bit insulted : )

DR for the home (1, Insightful)

Zog The Undeniable (632031) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092062)

I predict a big increase in sales of small generators. Quite a lot of people already have them in the countryside here in the UK (where powercuts are fairly frequent due to falling trees etc, and it takes longer to fix them because of their remoteness). An unfortunate side effect can be a choking diesel fog during a long powercut!

Still, what's the good of a home generator, Mr Anderson, if you're unable to find an ISP that works?

Re:DR for the home (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092112)

Yes, It is very common here to in America for backup generators. Especially in the country side.

Lots of places when you have a long term blackout of a few hours or a couple days, people just break out the "emergancy" beer rations and cook up some stakes before they unthaw in the freezer and have a little holiday out in the backyard cooking on the barbaque and watching TV.

Re:DR for the home (1)

switched4OSX (668686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092134)

"people just break out the "emergancy" beer rations and cook up some stakes "

I'd love to know what you marinate these in to get rid of the splinters.

Re:DR for the home (-1, Troll)

Kris_J (10111) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092113)

How about purchasing less food that needs refridgeration and some candles? (And a GBAsp.)

Free markets cause power blackouts? (5, Insightful)

Ricin (236107) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092065)

No, but greed, incompetence, short term thinking, and the outsourcing of everything does. Having no real authorities to answer to surely helps as well.

As a bonus it will get more expensive also, aren't we lucky :)

IMHO the privatizing of utilities such as electricity is *not* a matter of consumers' interests and not even a matter of producers' interests really. It's ideology. Religion if you like.

Re:Free markets cause power blackouts? (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092094)

No, but greed, incompetence, short term thinking, and the outsourcing of everything does. Having no real authorities to answer to surely helps as well.

Some would argue that a free market leads to all those things (maybe not incompetence, that's everywhere). So, perhaps free markets do cause power blackouts, if indirectly.

Re:Free markets cause power blackouts? (1)

Ricin (236107) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092129)

Not to mention that it's not a free (as in access) market at all. It's merely the old state/regional utilities in consortia under different names. They basically just re-divided the pie. At least here in Europe. Same with the telcos.

Re:Free markets cause power blackouts? (1)

ninthwave (150430) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092111)

Nail hit on head.

Utilities that are tied to geographic regions, phone lines, sewage, power do not recieve a benefit from being pushed into a free market after they have been set up. The California crisis highlighted the weakness in free market energy. Italy is highlighing what happens when you rely on the market and have no investment into an internal system relying on external sources.

The trend is not good, but it is not apocolypitic. It is something that can be fixed but are people willing to pay for it, we tend to view electricity as a necessity. It isn't it is a convience and should be charges as such.

Re:Free markets cause power blackouts? (4, Insightful)

Urkki (668283) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092188)

  • The trend is not good, but it is not apocolypitic. It is something that can be fixed but are people willing to pay for it

In other words, we're done for.

Re:Free markets cause power blackouts? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092179)

The power-cut in London was an accident. Still, if you have to make a living exaggurating things, I guess you *could* try and pretend this is the start of something new that only you know about, rather than just another power-cut in a history of occasional black-outs.

No reason to worry (1)

Indio_do_Xingu (675644) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092074)

These blackouts were a series of coincidences. There is no need to worry; actually this is a good opportunity for those who want to invest in the energy sector. Enron anyone?

Re:No reason to worry (1)

Troed (102527) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092093)

While these might be coincidences, the next might not [troed.se] . Why would a terrorist smuggle in a bomb to take out a city when he could just as easily cause the same distress by chopping down a few trees at the right place? (Yes, falling trees caused the blackouts in Italy and Sweden/Denmark).

Free Markets! Run for your lives! (1)

illuminata (668963) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092076)

Well, earlier today, we heard that free markets cause all kinds of terrible things in the tech industry, now we hear that it will cut the power. What's it going to do next, knock up my girlfriend and making the world spin backwards?

No, no. No bias at all. Right?

Basically, yes. (4, Insightful)

Moderation abuser (184013) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092080)

"Free markets cause power blackouts?"

The free market tries to make money out of the infrastructure this means low maintenance, low investment. It's a recipe for blackouts.

Can't say we weren't warned though.

Re:Basically, yes. (5, Informative)

Shorthouse (665038) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092148)

It's been coming for a long time.
When I worked for the local "Electricity Board" here in the UK, we had some 20 linesmen almost permanently employed cutting and trimming trees which threatened the overhead lines. There were still faults but these usually only occurred in extreme weather conditions.
Nowadays I hear there are just 2 staff allocated to tree cutting in our region - and one of those is the supervising engineer......

PS. Checking an old bill, I find that I pay the same per month now as I did almost 5 years ago.

Re:Basically, yes. (3, Insightful)

WeaponOfChoice (615003) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092220)

Traditionally the free market has made money out of the infrastructure by eliminating excess capacity and cutting back on "excessive" maintenance.
All comes apart when that excess is needed due to a failure elsewhere in in the grid...

Re:Basically, yes. (4, Insightful)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092246)

.... and even better, once there ARE blackouts, the companies are able to convince it's customers that because electricity scarce, it should cost more.

So, you stop paying for maintenance, and get to raise prices. Isn't that precious?

steve

Such Chicken Little nonsense I have never read (2, Insightful)

Illserve (56215) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092082)

Did the NYC blackout ruin everything? no, they fixed it, will patch the system and move on.

Was it regrettable? yes

Did it endanger our infrastructure? please.

People only 100 miles away from the blackout's edge lived their days normally.

As for "the interruption of a satellite" becoming a major issue, I fail to see how this is becomming a problem. It happened about a week ago didn't it? I'm still here. I could still buy food that morning.

In fact, this article is just flat out wrong. As our global infrastructure develops we will become MORE resistant to isolated incidents of damage, not less. Information structures route around damage, they don't amplify it. The blackouts were a special case of aging and obsolete equipment pushed beyond its tolerances. Now that problems have emerged, they will be addressed in a cycle of refit that has existed since the dawn of civilization.

This article is bullshit fearmongering in an attempt to capitalize on recent events to drum up readership.

Re:Such Chicken Little nonsense I have never read (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092159)

You are mostly right, but currently our information systems are not very fault tolerant. My internet was unusable when NY power was down (cos so much stuff was NY hosted I imagine). We need to change that because it's going to get more expensive when failures happen. It's just risk management - bigger risk means more countermeasures to reduce risk and reduce size of likely failure.

Re:Such Chicken Little nonsense I have never read (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092167)

The blackouts were a special case of aging and obsolete equipment pushed beyond its tolerances.

Italy lost all its power. That's 57 million people. Don't tell me Italy only has obsolete and aging equipment (although it might look like it if you've ever been to Italy).

Re:Such Chicken Little nonsense I have never read (2, Insightful)

torpor (458) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092216)

It is fearmongering, you are right, but do not be so naive to discount it at face value.

That food you bought in the grocery store. It was fresh. It probably had to be ordered from a market.

If the phones ('the net') go down for a week, maybe two ... then how will orders be placed?

Give this information-addicted society 4 weeks of nothing - i.e., the grid goes down - and what will things be like when it comes back up again? The scenario wherein a massive population is without power for weeks on end is not an unreal one ... it is a very real possiblity.

Okay, due to redundancy and the constructive power of people who *do* care in emergency situations enough to get things fixed and running again, maybe the *threat* is overstated.

But the possibility should not be overlooked that it could occur, and if it did occur - what may be the consequences to the society thereafter?

NIMBY (4, Interesting)

cperciva (102828) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092085)

All these recent failures have been the fault of transmission systems, not the fault of generation systems. Electrical grids are carrying ever-increasing amounts of power around, but haven't been upgraded for many years; it was inevitable that we would start to see problems with the grid becoming overloaded.

The problem is simply one of NIMBY. We need to build more transmission lines, but nobody wants the lines in *their* backyard. It's going to give them brain cancer; give their children leukemia; impede their views; reduce the value of their homes; destroy the last known habitat of the seven-toed porcupine.

Sometimes I really wonder if democracy is a good idea.

Deepness in the Sky (5, Interesting)

Shillo (64681) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092088)

(if you haven't read Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky, do so now ;) )

It's really funny how the end-of-civilisation scenarios mentioned in the book become reality. In particular, this is a case of his over-efficiency scenario: as the automation and control systems become more efficient, the margin for error gets narrower, until even a minor glitch can escalate to affect a large proportion of the planet. This happens in part because no single person fully understands the structure of the control mechanisms, so the catastrophic scenarios can't be predicted.

(the other scenario I remembered was ubiquitous law enforcement. Things like RFID tags, smart dust, and ubiquitous surveilance are all becoming possible)

That said, I don't think we're going to have the end of the world. But there will have to be some fundamental changes in the way we design and use the technology.

--

Damn, blackout (2, Funny)

SystematicPsycho (456042) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092089)

Damn, blackout, what can I do? I know I'll play some games, oh no wait, hrmm, I'll work on that code, oh, hrmmm, hrmmm, I'll read my mail, doh .. holy crap there is nothing to do :O

Of course. (4, Interesting)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092090)

Free markets cause power blackouts?

Of course. Free markets seek to maximize profits. In a sector where the barriers to entry are quite high, companies are much more able to increase price by lowering demand. It's one thing if the product in question is a luxury item, it's entirely another if it's an absolute necessity.

To put it more simply, they can charge us more money for the same amount of electricity if electricity is seen as something scarce. If electricity is seen as something that there is an abundance of, then they can't charge us as much.

Speaking of "Free Markets" in the sense of electricity isn't quite the same as speaking of free markets in terms of something like, say, cabbage. In my city of 0.5 million people, there are at least 0.4 million people capable of producing and selling cabbage. So, if the price of cabbage went up dramatically, you'd see people planting cabbage and selling it at lower prices. The barriers to entry (seed, land, water) are very common and cheap. Competition works for the consumers.

Now, if Scottish Power, which owns the local electric monopoly (company) were allowed to do what they wish with prices, of course they'd jack them up. But purchasing a large generator, becoming a public utility, going through the red-tape, putting up bonds, etc. is a long, expensive, and difficult process. In other words, the barriers to entry are much higher, so far, far fewer people would be able to provide an alternative to Scottish Power. That means, of course, that while it's not a true monopoly, Scottish power would have the ability to squeeze more money out of us for no other reason that "We can, so we will."

When options and alternatives are available, competition from free markets works. However, until sufficient options and alternatives exist to create competition, a deregulated market is essentially a government-created monopoly. ("You have no competitors, and provide an essential service? Well, then, feel free to rake the serfs over the coals at your leisure.")

steve

The London Blackout.... (2, Interesting)

Numen (244707) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092092)

The London blackout was rather misleadingly reported piece in the news in general, including the English news.

It was a power failure on a significant part of the London Underground (the underground train system).

The article furthers this misconception by compairing the London blackout the the blacking out of the US Eastern seaboard, which borders on the sensational. At no point does it tell you what actually blacked out.

Blackouts like the one that occured in Italy, and I *think*, but could well be wrong,the one in the US involve the logistics of brokering power between neighbouring countries. The London Underground blackout has nothing to do with this, it was a failure of part of a utility service, and was contained within that utility.

It annoyed the hell out of me that even here in London they reported a "London Blackout!" over the top of footage of a brightly lit evening street focusing on an entrance to a tube station (lit) with a flashing emergency sign (powered by electric not hampster power).

There are lessons that might be learnt in the ways countries broker power between each other, but we have to be careful not to roll everything into this... stuff breaks. Always has, always will. Stuff breaking isn't a new phenomena of the modern age, it's been breaking for a long time.

Re:The London Blackout.... (3, Informative)

Shimbo (100005) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092161)

The London Underground blackout has nothing to do with this, it was a failure of part of a utility service, and was contained within that utility.

I don't know where you got that idea from but it's completely wrong. London Underground ran their own power plant for nearly 100 years before they closed it last year [tfl.gov.uk] and went onto mains power. Bad (or unlucky) call. The report on the power failure [nationalgrid.com] is instructive reading on how a combination of circumstances can break what should have been a quadruply redundant system.

It annoyed the hell out of me that even here in London they reported a "London Blackout!" over the top of footage of a brightly lit evening street focusing on an entrance to a tube station (lit) with a flashing emergency sign (powered by electric not hampster power).

Sure, they don't have many feeds into the Tube power supply, so there were areas of London with power but no Underground trains. And once you've decided to evacuate, you can't switch the power back on without electrocuting a few commuters. You have to cold restart by clearing the whole system.

Won't matter if it does... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092096)

'Cuz I can download pr0n on my bongos!

Re:Won't matter if it does... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092230)

Where is it?
I wanna have sex with a aligator

a hard sex.

WOW!

Think again.. (3, Insightful)

adeyadey (678765) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092108)

It strikes me that national power systems often have dangerous reliance on a small number of big power-providers - large coal/gas/oil/nuclear stations, with electricity imported/transported down a few very large critical power lines. Alternative energy may provide a solution, because by its nature it needs a higher level of redundancy and a more intelligent and distributed power supply model. And its good for the planet too.. Wind energy [bwea.com] has really started to prove its use here in the UK, and is set to take off in the USA too [awea.org] . In the UK we should have 20% of national power from the Wind by 2020, and we have the offshore sites to get 100% eventually if we wanted. Add to that Solar, Tidal, etc.. Because of the very nature of these resources local/national distribution must be better, and include mechanisms to regulate in the case of a drop in power..

Oh, and what do you do when you have excess production? Turn the electricity into Hydrogen for your cars!

Lack of redundancy (3, Interesting)

grahamlee (522375) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092110)

The problem with the London blackout was a lack of redundant generating/distributing structure. Ironically, Transport for London had only very recently had a large ceremony in which they switched off the generator that had been powering the Tube, DLR, etc. These train networks were switched over to the national grid. Because of this, when two small (and easily repairable) failures in the distribution network occurred and the Grid provision to London and the south-east was interrupted, the trains and stations were rendered inactive. Only recently they would have been able to carry on unaffected thanks to their own generator, which the Mayor of London (Red Ken Livingstone) had insisted should continue suplying TfL.

So is a free market to blame? The problem here was a lack of redundant equipment, which was definitely a cost-saving exercise. But whether the costs are reduced in order to increase profit, or in order to reduce the tax burden, is insignificant in context. So no, in the case of the London blackout a free market wasn't the cause of the problems.

IN SOVIET RUSSIA.... (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092114)

Blackout powers YOU!

Badly formed markets cause blackouts (2, Insightful)

ConfusedVorlon (657247) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092116)

A true free market should respond to consumer needs. So - if it costs 10x more to provide failure free power and consumers don't want to pay 10x, they will not get it. Similarly, companies that are power dependant would pay more and get more reliability.

A shared infrastructure may make it hard to deliver differing levels of reliability - which is where a central body (government usually) comes in and specifies the requirements.

In most cases, the government has simply demanded low cost electricity provision. In this case, the companies have succesfully reduced the costs by actions such as stripping out excess generating capacity (in the UK at least)

If the government had required high reliability power supply (by imposing huge fines for any blackouts) then the companies would have optimised to a more reliable (and more costly) network with greater redundancy of network and generation capacity.

A market is powerful - but it will normally give you what you ask for and no more!

Re:Badly formed markets cause blackouts (1)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092172)

A true free market should respond to consumer needs. So - if it costs 10x more to provide failure free power and consumers don't want to pay 10x, they will not get it. Similarly, companies that are power dependant would pay more and get more reliability.

"should" and "do" are entirely different things. If it costs 1.25x more to provide reliable power, and electrical companies want to charge 5x more, then they use whatever legal (and often illegal) means to give the illusion that it's necessary to pay 5x more.

Before you argue with that, look at the quintessential example, Enron. They purposefully covertly created artificial blackouts to create a shortage, then bullied other entities into signing long-term contracts at the artificially inflated rates.

So, some of their actions were illegal. So, the rest were unethical. It doesn't matter, you can't just wave your magical wand of justice and make the consequences disappear. Even if California DOES manage to have the 10-year contracts nullified, Californians have already spent enormous amounts of money on those artificially inflated prices, and there's no way to get all of that back.

Here's where it gets really good: The companies that act the least ethically are generally able to pull in the most money, at least until the point at which they are caught/exposed/whatever. That means that until that point is reached (and sometimes after), the more ethical companies are automatically "naturally selected".

What does that mean? It means that without oversight/regulation, the market will tend to produce the most unethical companies possible without getting caught. In some markets, it makes less difference, but when you're talking about a service that is so entirely vital to economy, industry, and even LIFE, that's not what I want.

I'll take free markets in quite a few areas, but not in electricity. Electricity in my area has been tremendously reliable for decades, and a bunch of bugger-ups on the East and West coasts aren't enough to make me believe that I should run out and offer to pay twice as much to keep my service the way it already is - and the way it's already profitable enough to keep lots of companies interested.

Is it just me? (4, Interesting)

pubjames (468013) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092121)

Is it just me or is there something really weird about all the blackouts this year?

Why is it that many of these countries have not had significant blackouts for years, decades even, and then they all have signigicant blackouts within the same six month period?

Personally I find it really hard to believe that, for instance, a falling tree branch somewhere in the mountains managed to down just the right powerline to cause a blackout in the whole of Italy. It just doesn't ring true to me. This is critical infrastructure for christsakes! Governments know where the weaknesses are and have all kinds of plans in place to prevent this type of thing happening in case of war. (My father used to be on some of the comittees that put these plans together in the UK. They know where the weaknesses in infrastructure are.)

So I find it really difficult to believe that there have been small incidents that just so happened to have hit the critical spot to take out large sections of the powergrids in a number of different countries all within a few months. Somethings going on here. What is it? I can only speculate:

1) These are actually well planned terrorist attacks which are hushed up because politically Bush/Blair etc. need to be seen to be "winning the war on terrorism", and so we the general public don't get to know about them. (Notice that the blackouts affected NY, London and Italy - all of which supported the Iraq war?)

2) There is some kind of power (pun not intended) game going on between different governments.

3) The utility companies are doing this on purpose in order to get more tax dollars invested in their industries.

(Some people are going to respond that I am paranoid and need a tinfoil hat. You might be right. But personally I think the current mentality of completely dismissing offhand anything that suggests governments or corporations can act in an underhand manner on a coordinated scale is unhealthy - these things should get discussed, otherwise people in power will start to think they can get away with crazy things just because nobody would believe they would do it!)

Re:Is it just me? (5, Insightful)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092140)

Why is it that many of these countries have not had significant blackouts for years, decades even, and then they all have signigicant blackouts within the same six month period?

Because when the tree fell in the woods, nobody was around to hear it. Power outtages are one of the currently "trendy" things to report on, so you hear about much more of them.

Over the past several decades, the ability of the media to provide timely stories from farther away has greatly increased. Because of that, every glitzy, trendy subject can get far more coverage. When blackouts are the media's attention, you'll hear about plenty of them. When gun violence is their target, you'll hear about plenty of that.

The bit is that most of these things really aren't happening any more frquently than usual (sometimes actually LESS frequently!), but because you hear so much about it, it gives you the impression that it happens much more often.

Pick out a make, model, and color of car, and fixate your mind on it for a day or two. Suddenly, you will see far more of them on the road than you ever have before. There aren't really more of them, you just notice more of them.

steve

Re:Is it just me? (3, Insightful)

pubjames (468013) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092156)

Power outtages are one of the currently "trendy" things to report on, so you hear about much more of them.

Oh come on. I agree that there are trends in news stories, but Italy had not had a power outage on this scale for decades, nor had London or the USA. These are getting reported because they are significant.

Re:Is it just me? (1)

lars_stefan_axelsson (236283) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092206)

These are getting reported because they are significant.

Let's not forget southern Sweden. The last time we had an incident on this scale was in the eighties. And we beefed up our distribution infrastructure as a result that time.

Now, granted, this outage was rather 'unlucky' as such go, with two major unrelated outages in the same part of the country within minutes, while both the backups (sea cables to the continent) were down for maintainance.

It could be argued that taking both of them down at the same time is less than smart, but in all fairness, the scheduled maintenance were both rather big jobs, they needed to be done when the weather cooperated, and summer is when electricity consumption is at it's lowest in Sweden.

Re:Is it just me? (2, Insightful)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092228)


In the USA, I've seen several instances nearly an entire state was without power, and it never hit the national media, and was never really discussed afterwards.

Large-area blackouts happen. They just hadn't happened in New York for a while.

steve

Re:Is it just me? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092171)

The bit is that most of these things really aren't happening any more frquently than usual (sometimes actually LESS frequently!)

That's not true. These blackouts have been much more significant than any that have happened for years and years.

Re:Is it just me? (3, Insightful)

neglige (641101) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092182)

[...] significant blackouts within the same six month period?

My bet is on the weather this summer, at least here in Europe. Nuclear power plants had to reduce their energy output (some down to 50%) because the streams and rivers used for cooling the plant were too warm (max. temp is, iirc, 25 celsius). If a majority of the power plants had to do this, the total amount of power produced is reduced, increasing the chance for an outage...

Overall, while harsh market conditions might create "inferior products", due to budget restraints, those failings put the company in a bad light. I guess the budget for the energy infrastructure will rise in the next years.

Re:Is it just me? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092204)

it's that fucking global warming again, goddamnit

Re:Is it just me? (1)

RobotRunAmok (595286) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092186)

You left out

4) the Grey Men's Mothership, buried for centuries beneath the antarctic ice cap, is powering up to send its invasion beacon back to the Home World. The ship's ion-magneto drive crystals are sucking electrical energy through and across the planetary leylines, and as foretold through the bible codes and Atlantean runes kept in that Bilderberg safe and passed down by centuries of Illuminati, even our tin-foil hats won't save us now, Sparky!

Hey, could happen, right?

Re:Is it just me? (1)

pubjames (468013) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092218)

You left out [..] the Grey Men's Mothership [..] Hey, could happen, right?

You are mocking me. Well, you know I was expecting it...

Let me put the converse to you. Do you believe that it is impossible, or even highly improbable, that a government would hush-up something like a terrorist attack? If you do, go ahead and call me paranoid. I'll call you naive. Read some modern history books. You'd be suprised what governments are capable of.

Re:Is it just me? (1)

RobotRunAmok (595286) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092256)

Do you believe that it is impossible, or even highly improbable, that a government would hush-up something like a terrorist attack?

Hush-up? I was pretty certain the government was going to accredit the recent US NorthEast blackout to terrorism REGARDLESS of the "real" reason. I think they think we could use a little bloodless terror attack to shock us out of complacency and re-focus pre-election attention onto terror threats and homeland security and away from economic issues.

I am also virtually certain that a number of scarey major terror plots have been thwarted in the past two years and gone un-reported, but the recent blackout was not one of them.

Re:Is it just me? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092195)

please remit $5 for shipping of your honorary tin hat to the following address...

Re:Is it just me? (1)

pacman on prozac (448607) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092225)

Maybe we're running out of fuel....

Certainly would explain a few other things that have happened lately.

Didn't you get all that stuff in school about how we were going to run out of gas/petrol/coal/etc in around 2002-2020. Strangely nobody has mentioned that in the last 5 years, that could well be because it was wrong or perhaps teachers were asked not to mention it for some reason.

Tinfoil aside I do think in general we have been getting more rampantly capitalist at any cost recently and its quite likely that these blackouts are caused by managing directors making bad decisions in order to extend their own wallets over the years. Everything else seems to be slowly getting cheaper and lower quality, its bound to bite us in the arse eventually.

Shark Attacks! (4, Insightful)

Saint Stephen (19450) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092122)

Remember the "Summer of the Shark Attacks" ?? i.e. Summer 2001....

We tend to focus too much on the news of the moment. If we have a bunch of blackouts, all that will happen is we'll work real hard and turn the power back on.

Although the sequence of blackouts is an odd coincidence. Mebbe somebody's playing a trick.

Here's something to think about... (3, Insightful)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092124)


Every eocnomic and/or industrial revolution in the history of our planet has come about as a result of an increase in the ability to provide energy. That energy can be in the way of food (provide more workers), or it can be mechanical energy to perform tasks WITHOUT the workers. In either case, an increase of energy production and availability has spurred the revolution.

So, if a country wanted to greatly increase it's industry and economy, it's not entirely unreasonable that looking for ways to provide as much power as possible at the lowest rates would be a great way to start out.

Here's some more to think about: In prtty much all of those revolutions, the changes came from the bottom up, so to speak - the workers/merchants were the ones doing the innovating, and freedom to do so was a critically important ingredient for the recipe to work.

In previous times, it wasn't very easy to get a monopoly on energy without stifling growth - once you completely controlled the food or other source of energy, the motivation to innovate was greatly stifled - people don't care about producing excesses of food if they know you'll just take it away. And if you didn't take control (left the market free), then there was plenty of competition in the markets of food, lumber, and other sources of energy.

Today, however, things are different. Our energy sources (oil, electricity, natural gas, etc.), which allow us to use much greater amounts of energy, are also very easily monopolized because of distribution. If you own the oil/natural gas pipes, the electrical lines, or the phone lines, then it's awfully tough for someone to cut in on your profiteering racket. To do so takes a governmental mandate, and as we've seen in the telecom industry, at times even THAT isn't enough.

steve

overdependence (3, Funny)

ed__ (23481) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092142)

and once we solve the overdependence on electricity, we can solve our overdependence on clean water, and air, and food, manufactured goods, raw materials, cheap labor, children in sweatshops, working poor, janitors, cars, fossil fuels, shoes, houses, silicon, land, ozone, the sun, and all that other stuff we are so dependent on.

because god knows, dying in the electricity apocalypse would suck, but i'd rather go there than in the sewage apocolypse.

thank you, good night.

utilities (4, Insightful)

Tom (822) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092152)

Free markets cause power blackouts?

That was a rhetorical question, wasn't it? The picture is clear on all utilities: Privatisation has almost always had the same effect:

* In the short run, prices plummet and more alternatives appear.
* In the long run, after a low number of de-facto monopolists remain, prices rise and reliability and service go down

Exceptions I know about are:

* Some 2nd world countries that were forced to privatisation by the WTO, where the first step was skipped (water in south america, great topic)
* A few 1st world countries who - so far - managed to keep competition going, usually by the dreaded government intervention against emerging monopolies.

The problem is simple: As a government company, a utilities' purpose is to supply something to the people, be it water, power or phone service.
As a commercial entity, its purpose is to make money for its stockholders. If regular blackouts increase your profits, we will see more of them. If firing half your service people, reducing maintainance costs and saving the R&D money for future developments rises the stock prices, that is what we will see to happen.

Oh, sorry, have seen happening.

Re:utilities (1)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092205)

Exceptions I know about are:

The exceptions are markets with low barriers of entry. When barriers to entry are low, competition abounds. The higher the barriers to entry, the less competition there is, and the more the market fits your description.

steve

Re:utilities (1)

Tom (822) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092244)

Which utilities have low barriers of entry? Supplying a country with anything will always require considerable prior investments. Neither power, nor water, garbage, phone service, etc. is something you can start in your garage.

Bullshit... (1)

SharpFang (651121) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092158)

The society has enough spare resources to survive pretty harmlessly even quite long blackouts. And they don't mean serious problem. Simply - everything goes "on hook", it's a perfect excuse for not having your work done - and a real one. Simply - "time of stasis", all activities get stopped until the power is back on. Downtime gets forgiven, contracts get postponed, meetings made highly optional. It doesn't mean any real harm. Just a stop. (note, your competition gets stopped just as well :)

And about the blackout activities... In Poland, in times of worst crisis, blackouts were very common. Connecting this fact with limited availablity of condoms, this explains the sudden peak in nation's birth rate with 9 month shift from that period...

Re:Bullshit... (1)

NerveGas (168686) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092193)

Yes, "society" will survive. However, individuals can be a different story. Every hot summer, good numbers of people die from the heat even when they HAVE power. Take the power away, and things get pretty bad. And in the winter, it can be nearly as bad.

Also, small lapses in productivity can often be written off, but as for anything non-trivial, perhaps you should look more into the mechanics of what drives industry and economy. Guess what the driving factor is... energy!

Sure, Poland survived with long blackouts. And look what their economy and industry did during that time... next to nothing. There's a reason why our scientists were busy whipping out atomic bombs, and theirs were doing little: They were spending their time trying to survive, while because of our abundance of energy and division of labor, our scientists were able to do a lot of work. The same is true for all other aspects of the economy and industry as well.

Take a look at "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" for a good historical look at the real driving powers of innovation and production.

steve

Re:Bullshit... (1)

mccalli (323026) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092200)

Simply - "time of stasis", all activities get stopped until the power is back on...It doesn't mean any real harm.

Speaking as someone who used to need a life-support machine, I'd say that opinion is a tad blase;, personally...

OK, medical facilities will (or at least, should) have their own backups but those only last for so long. A blackout is bit more serious than somebody's work PC switching off.

Cheers,
Ian

Telepolis ... (3, Insightful)

belbo (11799) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092166)

... is a left-wing, anti-American online magazine which derives its current popularity from being one of the main hubs for German 9/11 conspiracy-theorists (i.e. they more or less maintain that the U.S. government at least knew what was coming). See Just so you know who you are getting your information from ...

Telepolis "award-winning", but often also alarmist (1)

hwilker (225377) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092187)

A number of regular contributors to Heise's Telepolis web magazine seem to come from the what I like to call "I always knew it" camp. Alarmism, conspiracies, mindless misinterpretations of current research results, and lack of knowledge about economics are a mark of their writing. Usually, you can recognize them after a couple of paragraphs; after that, the articles retain some entertainment value, but only seldom offer food for thought or original analysis.

A large part of Telepolis' articles, however, is excellent journalism with important subjects that most print publications would not touch with a ten-foot pole.

Succesful free market is a generalization (1)

GammaTau (636807) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092191)

The fact that free market has been demonstrated to be succesful in most areas of economy is a generalization. The free market, just like any other economical method, is subject to human mistakes and misexpectations, even in a global scale (e.g. the Y2K issues). The free market only gives an advantage to the ones who make less mistakes and do more accurate predictions.

Yesterday, in the center of Hamburg, Germany ... (1, Funny)

Tux2000 (523259) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092194)

... my co-worker at the opposite table sais "Pah, blackouts can't happen in germany. We have a very narrow and redundant power grid." [translated]

Now imagine his face ten seconds later, when all monitores became black, all lights went off, and the UPS switched to battery supply. The local power company needed 2.5 hours to get the power back ...

(This is real life, not a joke.)

Tux2000

Re:Yesterday, in the center of Hamburg, Germany .. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092238)

The same happened in Italy to a slightly larger scale. Now everyone recalls back in August when the balck-out stroke NY, one of the eggheads of GRTN (main Italian power distributor) came up announcing: "...a similar occurrence could simply never happen in Italy..."

-d

It's the republicans' fault (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 10 years ago | (#7092210)

conservation is the answer. We don't need any more stinkin nukuler plants, coal and oil fired plants cause global cooling, oops, global warming, and fuhgedabout drilling in pristine tundra where the animals roam...

We need to maintain the global reliance on middle east oil so we can kick around Halliburton conspiracy theories, and keep the real fuel, personal attacks and an organized trashing effort on the republicans during the election cycle, and to keep feeding the media during the off season.

What do you expect, us to go out and get real jobs?

Weakest Link = Problem (1)

Newer Guy (520108) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092211)

The problem is that these days, every power plant is interconnected to the 'grid'. All it takes is ONE poorly maintained utility to make the whole thing cascade fail like dominoes falling. That's what happened in August. One utility (a shit one in Ohio, who can't even keep their nuke plant properly maintained) threw the whole grid out of whack. Problem is, the whole system is VOLUNTARY. Except for power syncronization, there are really no reliability standards set by anyone. Thus, the grid becomes like a chain - only as strong as its weakest link.

Let's reverse the power grid... (1)

vudufixit (581911) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092212)

How about if everyone generates their own power (Internal combustion units, fuel calls, wind, solar, or some combo thereof) and the big power plants' job is to back those units up when they run out of fuel or break down. A distributed power network like this is the way to go to avoid blackouts. It also makes power disruptions by terrorists pretty much a non-issue.

Correct problem, wrong cause (4, Insightful)

seldolivaw (179178) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092248)

Yes, we are critically reliant upon power networks, even more so as more and more of our commercial and even social life moves online. Yes, recent events have shown how vulnerable both of these are. But the author of the article trots out the traditional anti-globalization arguments to explain the problem: that focussing on profits instead of service levels leads to poor services. But likewise, in a regulated or monopolistic situation, lack of competition produces no incentive to improve service levels -- the energy industry in Italy is by no means a free market, yet they've just had the largest blackout in history.

The real problem is in the design of networks. Information networks are designed to be fault-tolerant (famously but erroneously attributed to a desire to withstand nuclear attacks) -- multiple connections and a "mesh" network mean that if nodes break, traffic is routed elsewhere and the network continues to function. This works great, and there's no problem with it. But the problem is, humans don't build networks this way, and economics is against doing so.

If you're buying a network connection, you buy it from the best provider available, which naturally means network connections become concentrated to a few suppliers, who in turn find economies of scale and provide lower prices, thus attracting more customers. Thus the economics of building networks naturally produces networks that have a few or even single points of failure: we noticed this on September 11th, when the knockout of the huge links through New York noticeably slowed transatlantic traffic, even to sites other than CNN and the other news sites that were being toasted by demand at that point. Centralisation is something that we naturally do because it's economically efficient, but centralisation leads to problems for networks.

In the energy sector, things are even less flexible, because energy connections are a lot more expensive to set up and difficult to maintain than information links. The US powercut was caused by the cascading failure of a daisy-chain of power stations around the great lakes. Nobody would build an information network that way any more, but it's still the natural way to build a power network. Italy's powercut was caused by a huge reliance on foreign power, supplied by JUST TWO LINKS to France -- one fell over, instantly overloading the second and knocking it out too.

Yes, we are critically reliant on these fragile networks. And yes, economic realities tend to cause these problems, but not because of privatization: it's simply because humans naturally tend to build poor networks, because those are cheaper -- no matter who pays the bills. To solve the problem, we need to pay more attention to networking theory when building all of our networks, and provide regulatory incentives to build better networks of both kinds.

Or one day, a critical failure will cause a cascading catastrophe, and it will be nobody's fault. We built the network to fail that way.

End of the Internet predicted (1)

Lars Clausen (1208) | more than 10 years ago | (#7092251)

Film at eleven.

IMHO, the net is a lot more resilient than the power grid. Jumping from powerouts to net meltdown is like claiming that an increase in car traffic makes train accidents more likely.

OTOH, I agree that having basic infrastructure like roads, power, and water on private hands is a recipe for disaster. Monopolization and short-term interests combine to cause real problems.

Remember that there's a vital difference between state monopolies and private monopolies: State monopolies have their primary focus on ensuring stability. Private monopolies have their primary focus on making money. Which do you want cleaning your water?

-Lars
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