India’s epic power blackout has brought some attention to the state of America’s energy stability, and various pundits and analysts are asking whether or not the U.S. is either headed for, or vaguely prepared for a catastrophic power outage of the sort that afflicted India last week.
The answer seems to be, yes, we are at increasing risk of wide-scale power-outages, and no, we’re not really ready to do much to avoid it. As Aaron Jagdfeld writes in Forbes:
Power quality is the measure of reliable power in our homes and businesses, and it has been declining steadily since 1990. During this time, demand for power has increased by 25%, but the infrastructure needed to transmit power to homes has increased by a mere 7%. We have become a digital society, but are burdened with an analog power grid—one that is inefficient and susceptible to weather, surging demand, and even terrorist attack.
And that declining power quality comes with costs:
Each outage comes at a cost; the average cost of a one-second outage among industrial and digital firms is about $1,477. That means the U.S. economy loses between $104 billion and $164 billion each year to power outages.
Jagdfeld accurately places the blame where it belongs: On regulators who create disincentives for private sector investment in grid maintenance and upgrading:
American utility companies are as constrained as the government when it comes to meaningful investment in grid improvement. The 3,200 utility companies that touch the power grid are regulated by an equal number of agencies, many of which exist solely to minimize cost to consumers. This is undeniably good for consumers in most cases, but it has left us with a broken power grid that no one is responsible for (or capable of) fixing.
I’ve long observed that politicians love new infrastructure, particularly if it has their name on it. They love going to ribbon cutting ceremonies, or boarding the first train at a transit station they authorized, but they don’t much like spending money on maintaining what they build, they don’t operate infrastructure as a business, and they’re downright averse to charging the public enough to allow for suitable maintenance. Add obstructionist environmentalists into the mix, and you have a recipe for grid degradation and an elevated risk of major blackouts.