If the recent loss of power across the Northeast United States makes you think of the Aug. 14, 1914, Battle of the Frontiers and the Guns of August, I'd be delighted. It will help you to remember that we have lost the battle of the power grid, a battle we shouldn't have lost, and it will remind you to depend on yourself for backup power.
The government can't help. Information coming out of a hastily convened call-in press briefing by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) on the morning after the blackout wasn't too comforting. On the positive side, there was no reported terrorism, and no subsystem failure in New York City. There was no lightning strike, either, but as to cause, the "final verdict may be months away," Michehl R. Gent, NERC's president and CEO, admitted.
Facing a well-mannered but nonetheless aggressive crowd wanting to know on whose doorstep to lay blame and responsibility, Gent frankly admitted he had difficulty accepting that such an advanced technical system failed, given efforts to build in safeguards to sidestep such trouble. He also promised a well-organized, wide-ranging effort to get to the facts without pulling any punches.
Still, the bottom line is that an advanced technical system is broken and we don't know why. Maybe it's because the whole thing is a bit more complicated than it needs to be. Fingers already point to a few culprits: Deregulation (no surprise there) separated the people who operate generators from those who manage transmission-line systems. One result is that we've got enough raw power but not enough of a delivery system. Others point to computer hackers. Systems in place can't guarantee that mischief makers won't get in, but it's been made "impossible" for hackers not to leave footprints behind.
Maybe. But what's the difference? If terrorists or hackers are caught and jailed for life, they do so on the taxpayer's back. That's no deal.
On the day following the blackout, stock prices rose significantly for a few uninterruptible power supply companies. Who cares? That's not an issue, but getting you to get a UPS or generator is. One reader asked me if I had really anticipated any power grid problems this summer, based on what he called a "fun to read" Power Play column in June. Sure I expected trouble. To paraphrase Professor Jennings from the movie Animal House, "This is my job. I'm not kidding!"
Neither should you be.
Vincent Biancomano covers power products for ProductWeek. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.