Saturday, December 10, 2005

Electricity, the aging benevolent dictator

"The U.S. power grid got little attention until the blackout of August 2003, which started when a few power lines in Ohio sagged into trees and shorted, cascading into an outage across an eight-state area of the northeastern United States, affecting 50 million residents. The blackout exposed the grid's vulnerability to negligence, accidental failures and terrorist attack.

"Like other metropolitan areas, the Washington region relies on a mixture of electric power that is either produced nearby or imported from more distant power plants over the Eastern Interconnection, the grid of high-voltage transmission lines stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Rockies."

The "56-year-old power plant on the Potomac River in Alexandria" about which this article begins is across the street from my apartment. Apparently, "since the Truman administration, the plant has been the principal source of electricity for downtown Washington," DC.

Besides being well-written and authored by Peter Behr who is "researching a book on the nation's electricity grid," I have grown to find this topic especially fascinating for a couple reasons.

For some reason, when people think about "electricity," they think it's about as interesting as economics, or congressional budgets. The truth is, all those topics are actually very interesting and of great consequence. They fail to capture the public's imagination or even attention because of their transparency.

Electricity is invisible. It's a means to an end. We have no idea how much we really use it or need it, until it's gone. What's a matter for nothing short of fervent prayer is what life is like when there is no power—when the lights don't come on; when the food in the fridge goes bad; when you can't see until morning; when your relationships with people around you change dramatically.

We've seen previews of how unraveled our society can become with grid failures and hurricanes. We run our own lives on electricity, and also every bit of structure that holds American civilization together today is inextricably sustained by electricity.

Without electricity, these United States would be little more than a third world country. We couldn't even hold 18th Century America status—then they actually knew how to live without electricity. Today, without electricity we have virtually no law enforcement.

All of our communication systems run on electricity. All of our physical mobility systems run on gas which is refined, pumped, and completely dependent on electricity. We've seen how people in every corner of society react when placed in such circumstances so extremely different than our normal operations.

As Behr points out, "business as usual doesn't assure that plants will be built where they're needed for secure electricity. There is no natural constituency for preventing a disaster that hasn't happened." Of all the pressure groups in Washington, none are advocating exclusively for better and more electricity.

The problem, politically speaking, is there's no controversy. Everyone agrees we need electricity. We haven't had an insurmountable hiccup in our electricity supply.

For those with the foresight to see the problem, the situation waiting to happen and the dramatic consequences to unfold, we can encourage our leaders to invest in infrastructure, pray about what we can do today for the future, and then prepare for what we can do once the inevitable chaos follows.

The other fascinating thing about electricity is Joy at Work is all about the way AES generated power under the leadership of Dennis Bakke. And Power Trip is all about corruption, assassination, and street-rioting over electricity in Georgia (the country).

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