Stuart Hertzog

 H E R T Z O G

The Limits of Power (Grids)

The failure of the eastern power grid suggests that maybe we’ve reached the limits of centralized electricity generation.

CBC Radio (national), August 14, 2003

Last week’s massive failure of the entire east coast power grid was nothing new.

Two major blackouts occurred in 1965 and 1977. 1965 was a peaceful event, but in 1977 rioting broke out in New York.

Not to mention the spike in human births that took place nine months after each failure of the electrical power system.

We still don’t know what caused the latest outage.

But perhaps the exact cause of this failure doesn’t matter.

“ Clearly, there is a fundamental flaw in our current system of centralized electricity generation and transmission. Centralized electricity generation and transmission is insecure.

Clearly, there is a fundamental flaw in our current system of centralized electricity generation and transmission.

Centralized generation and transmission, in which all the electricity we use is created in big power stations, is insecure.

Something causes the weakest link to fail — and POOF — the whole grid goes down, causing instant disruption and potential tragedy.

It is not a reliable system.

Perhaps we should be taking a lesson from the Internet, which is a fail-safe, redundant system.

If an Internet hub goes down, data is instantly routed around the failure.

In contrast, one failure in our centralized electricity grid can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

For many years, energy experts and environmentalists have been pointing to alternative energy as a way out of our dependence on dirty fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Clean alternatives such as solar, wind and small hydro.

And co-generation that can make electricity from the waste heat of factories, office and apartment buildings, hospitals, and schools.

Alternative energy offers other advantages.

“ Alternative energy is decentralized; it’s efficient; and it’s fail-safe. Many small generators, rather than one huge central power station feeding a costly and fragile transmission grid, return to each one of us the power to create and control our own electrical energy.... Perhaps that’s why utilities and governments don’t like it.

Alternative energy is decentralized; it’s efficient; and it’s fail-safe.

It consists of many small generators, rather than one huge central power station feeding a costly and fragile transmission grid.

The electricity is created right where it is going to be used.

There are no transmission losses, and if one unit goes down, its neighbours are not affected.

Alternative energy returns to each one of us the power to create and control our own electrical energy.

Perhaps that’s why utilities and governments don’t like it.

I believe that it’s time to learn the lesson of the latest disaster, and move on.

We must move ahead with meaningful government and private-sector support for clean, decentralized, reliable, alternative energy.

The fragile transmission grid should be for backup power, not the only source of the electricity we all need in this Information Age.

A wise man once studied a big, national power grid, and realised that centralized power generation was misguided.

He was the chief economist for the National Coal Board in the U.K., and his name was Erich Schumacher.

Schumacher coined the phrase: Small is Beautiful. You may have heard it before.

But for energy, I suggest that Decentralization is Security.

For Commentary, in Victoria I’m Stuart Hertzog.

© Stuart Hertzog, 2003