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Got Electricity?

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The news from Iraq today is focused as usual on increasing violence, with a new Pentagon report revealing that attacks in Iraq are now at record levels. The New York Times coverage is here. Meanwhile, the President can’t seem to get agreement from his Pentagon Chiefs to the neocon’s troop surge proposal. So much for “I’ll do whatever our Generals want.” (For a selection of Iraq-related news/analysis check out Steve Gilliard , Think Progress, Swopa and digby.)

The next NYT front page story describes how Iraq insurgents are starving Baghdad of electricity by repeatedly blowing up the transmission lines — actually, blowing up the 150 ft tall towers that hold the lines, which then shorts out that whole link. The insurgents target those high voltage lines that carry lots of power into the city from areas outside the city where most of the generating capacity is located. No matter how much security the US and Iraqi forces provide, and how fast repair crews replace/repair the towers, the insurgents manage to keep bringing them down faster than they can be repaired and put back up.

BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 — Over the past six months, Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, Iraqi officials say, as insurgents have effectively won their battle to bring down critical high-voltage lines and cut off the capital from the major power plants to the north, south and west.

The battle has been waged in the remotest parts of the open desert, where the great towers that support thousands of miles of exposed lines are frequently felled with explosive charges in increasingly determined and sophisticated attacks, generally at night. Crews that arrive to repair the damage are often attacked and sometimes killed, ensuring that the government falls further and further behind as it attempts to repair the lines.

The result, of course, is that the residents of Baghdad and surrounding communities are without electricity for most hours of the day, and they're never quite sure when electricity will be restored or for how long. The effects are devastating:

What amounts to an electrical siege of Baghdad is reflected in constant power failures and disastrously poor service in the capital, with severe consequences for security, governance, health care and the mood of an already weary and angry populace.

“Now Baghdad is almost isolated,” Karim Wahid, the Iraqi electricity minister, said in an interview last week. “We almost don’t have any power coming from outside.”

That leaves Baghdad increasingly dependent on a few aging power plants within or near the city’s borders.

Mr. Wahid views the situation as dire, while Western officials in Baghdad are generally more optimistic.

Where have we heard that dichotomy before? The whole article is worth a read; kudos to David Cloud and Michael Gordon for a generally accurate description of an electrial system and its vulnerability.

The laws of physics are the same everywhere, so the Iraq grid system must operate more or less like those in US. Just as in Iraq, our major cities originally relied on smaller plants near downtown. Those plants, built decades ago, are now aging relics, less reliable, more costly to run and often more polluting. As the cities grew, the increasing demand was met by newer, larger plants located away from the cities, often in remote locations near coal fields or fuel lines or where it seemed "safe" to put a nuclear plant (and near water, because they need lots of water for cooling). That means we all rely, every day, on a system of long-distance, high voltage transmission lines that carry power from the remote power plants to the population centers. The Times story is describing a similar pattern in Iraq.

After 9/11, there was a lot of concern here about potential attacks on nuclear plants, because of the contamination hazard in the event the containment structure was breached, but the major vulnerability is the thousands of miles of unwatched transmission lines. You simply can't guard them all, not here, not in Iraq. Of course, major lines suffer outages on occasion, but we usually don't know about that because utilities and regional control centers plan for this, so that power flows are automatically and instantaneously rerouted along different lines, and your lights stay on. That protective structure appears to be missing or destoyed in Iraq.

Most of the electricity outages that we experience in the US are caused by local distribution failures (like an aging transformer blowing up in your neighborhood), not outages in major transmission lines, and virtually never because there are not enough generating plants (the issue politicians focus on). In the US we typically build (and your rates pay for) about 15-25 percent extra "reserve" capacity above peak demand, just so we always have enough, even when plants go down for maintenance, refueling (nukes) or breakdowns. In Iraq, you’ve got all those “normal” failures, plus few of the backup mechanisms, plus a mess of ad hoc neighborhood fixes that are not integrated with the rest of the grid — which means even when the main grid goes back up, there’s a problem in manually switching from the makeshift equipment back to the main grid, even if there is no violence.

Think about what the Iraqis are going through, and now come home to America. Ask yourself, if someone equally determined wanted to take out the US electrical grid, could they do it? And if that started to happen, would government officials know what to do? When the major blackout occurred in the Eastern US in August 2003, the entire media and many state and local officials did not even know whom to call. Many did not realize that their local utility no longer controls the system; in more than half the country, multi-state regional control centers operate the grid, because the US grid is so interconnected that reliability requires extensive regional coordination every second (electricity moves near the speed of light). In fact, the entire Eastern half of the US and Canada functions as one huge, interconnected electrical machine. That’s why uncontrolled blackouts can cascade so quickly over so large an area. There's a Western Interconnection as well, and then there's Texas, still only weakly connected to America.

Fortunately, the good people who operate the system generally know what to do under most emergency conditions, but not under conditions like those in Iraq. And at the federal level, oversight and regulation are not reassuring. Let's see, is Michael "Katrina" Chertoff still in charge of Homeland Security? And guess who chairs the Senate oversight committee on Homeland Security? Meanwhile, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees US grid operational and reliability rules, continues to issue orders and rules that ignore the laws of physics (what is it about science with these guys?) and don't accurately describe how the electricity grid actually operates.

But not to worry, I'm sure the Bush Administration is doing everything it can to reduce the level of anti-US sentiment and thus reduce the chances of attacks on the US grid. If not, I think we need something better than just tapping my cell phone and reading my e-mails.

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Scarecrow

Scarecrow

John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley

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