Blame the Blackout on Y2K

Issue 10 and Volume 107.

By Brian K. Schimmoller,
Managing Editor

While NERC, FERC, DOE, MISO, and every other electricity-related acronym debate the cause of the August 14 power blackout and whether or not some poor Joe literally fell asleep at the switch with his phone turned off, I’m going to cut through the acrimony and confusion and give you the real reason.

Make sure you’re sitting down. Here it comes … Blame it on Y2K. That’s right, Y2K. Basically, the blackout was all part of a giant conspiracy that had its genesis in the Y2K scare. Remember all of those “experts” doing their best Chicken Little impressions and boldly proclaiming the collapse of the energy sector when the clocks passed midnight on Dec. 31, 1999? Well, over the past three years, those discredited experts have conducted an underground sabotage campaign to salvage their battered egos, culminating in the cascading blackout of August 14.

Sources tell me that the original planned date for the blackout was January 1, 2003, but that the leader of the sabotage group mistakenly wrote 2002 on the check he sent to his Internet service provider, inadvertently interrupting his web access and forcing a delay. The next scheduled date was March 3 (030303), which fell victim to another delay when a politically correct anti-spam filter quarantined the blackout launch e-mail because it interpreted the “030303” in the subject line to mean “hugs and kisses.” Thus, the date slipped to August 14, which, as every respectable grid saboteur knows, is the day that Ernest Thayer was born in 1863. Who’s Ernest Thayer, you ask? He’s the writer who penned the poem “Casey at the Bat,” which ends with the immortal words, “mighty Casey has struck out,” re-fashioned by the grid saboteurs as, “the mighty grid has blacked out.”

Anyone falling for this? Didn’t think so, but conspiracy hunting is a lot of fun.

Still, in all seriousness, I believe there is a relationship between the Y2K scare and the 2003 blackout. When Americans watched the ball drop in Times Square on December 31, 1999, ushering in the year 2000, and nothing happened to the power network, complacency quickly set in. Most of us went on our merry way, barely acknowledging the preparation and planning that went in to ensuring the Y2K transfer was a smooth one.

Feelings of complacency, disinterest, and flat-out disgust have continued — and intensified — toward the power industry over the past three years, as bad news has heaped atop bad news: faltering deregulation, the Enron debacle, natural gas price spikes, bankruptcies, shareholder revolt, etc. The blackout in August gave the power industry another whopper of a black eye, and gave consumers another reason to harbor ill will toward the industry.

Is that ill will justified? Maybe not, but it’s there, and even if the investigation reveals that the source of the entire blackout was a once-in-a-lifetime chance string of events, whatever ill will remains will be directed at the power industry.

Amid the rancor, I find the debate over the state of the transmission network particularly amusing. On one side, we have Governor Bill Richardson claiming that the U.S. transmission infrastructure is equivalent to that of a third-world country. On the other side, industry proponents laud the transmission infrastructure as the best in the world. Both extremes are laughable. Many third-world countries would willingly cede a third of their beach-front property to have a transmission network as “third-world” as ours. By the same token, mere possession of a high-tech system does not mean it always operates as such. If so, there would be no such thing as a BMW auto mechanic.

Let’s face it. There are problems with the transmission system as currently designed and operated, and assigning blame for these problems is a necessary part of the restoration process. Finger-pointing, however, is a total waste of time unless the finger ends up pointing toward a solution. In all likelihood, the solution will be multi-faceted, addressing technical, regulatory, and systemic shortcomings. There will be no “silver bullet” solution.

From a generation perspective, part of the solution may be increased use and application of distributed generation and energy storage. In the immediate aftermath of the blackout, I was bombarded by press releases extolling the virtues of these technologies. From the releases, it almost sounded like a miracle “blackout vanishing cream” had been discovered. However, unless and until a residential power system can be developed that runs on fresh air and never breaks down, some form of an interconnected grid will be necessary. DG and energy storage will receive renewed attention – and deservedly so – but they are not a panacea.

Y2K showed what our industry can do when facing a big challenge. At least subconsciously, the American public must have felt some pride in their utilities’ abilities to keep everything running on Jan. 1, 2000. Unfortunately, much of that pride has been eroded over the past several years.

There’s a line from the movie Apollo 13 that captures the personal and institutional resolve necessary to deal with crisis situations such as the August 14 blackout. When Flight Director Gene Kranz overheard a NASA executive say, “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced,” Kranz curtly replied, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

As the power industry deals with the short and long-term implications of the blackout, it’s time to adopt another one of Kranz’s mottos: Failure is not an option.