Transcript of radio commentary that aired in September 2003 on KUNM public radio 89.9 fm in Albuquerque. Link to audio at end of page.

By Arjun Makhijani

On August 14, 2003, fifty million people in the northeastern United States, parts of the Midwest, and parts of Canada lost all electricity. It was the largest blackout in history.

While the blackout was caused by technical and managerial failures, the parallels with the tragedy of September 11, 2001, are striking. In both cases, there had been prior warnings of catastrophe by specialists in the field. In both cases, Washington essentially ignored the warnings until catastrophe struck.

The aftermath also has eerie similarities. In the case of September 11, the facts increasingly point to a cynical use of the tragedy to justify a prior decision to wage war on Iraq. Now the blackout is being used to justify a pre-existing agenda: the construction of a national electrical grid. It was spelled out very clearly in the May 2001 National Energy Policy Report, produced by a task force led by Vice-President Cheney.

Like the War on Terror, the national electrical grid will likely reduce individual rights. The Bush administration has proposed that if farmers and ranchers and other property owners don’t agree to give up their land for transmission lines, the government may take it over by “eminent domain.”

I doubt that a national grid will solve the problem of an increasingly unreliable electricity supply, any more than the war on Iraq solved the problem of terrorism. The lack of a national grid did not create the reliability problem. Rather, the villain of the piece was the irresponsible process of deregulation that favored large corporations and speculators like Enron.

Deregulation created the electrical equivalent of urban sprawl. Corporations were allowed to generate electricity anywhere and sell it anyplace. But an effective police force to limit speeds or prevent gridlock was not created. On the contrary, as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has noted, the Independent System Operators, or ISO’s, who were supposed to manage the traffic, “were held hostage by local utilities and other special interests.” That’s like having the traffic cops held hostage by motorists.

We don’t need national electrical sprawl, which may actually aggravate the reliability problem. We need ISO’s with authority to require large-scale generators to maintain sufficient standby capacity and to charge them heavy fees when they make sales that are likely to stress the grid. We need rules that allow local generators of electricity to sell to local users at fair prices because they reduce stress on the grid. We know how to make existing grids far more reliable. But the political will is gravitating to a national grid, where the large corporations want it to be.

For an alternative to the energy policies of the Cheney Energy Task Force, see my report, Securing the Energy Future of the United States at www.ieer.org. This is Arjun Makhijani.