ProPublica gets the establishment view on the Arizona-SoCal blackout, the establishment says it needs more money and authority

Michael Giberson

At ProPublica, Ariel Wittenburg assesses the meaning of the early September blackout affecting parts of Arizona, Southern California, and Northern Mexico. The proximate cause was substation maintenance in Yuma, Arizona and an apparent fault in protective systems that should have kept surrounding lines running during maintenance. As these systems failed, the disturbance reached generators in the regions, which protected themselves by switching offline and pushing the area into a blackout. (It is easier to restart a generator that has been tripped off, than rebuild a generator that has been fried.)

While Wittenburg more or less endorses the “aging infrastructure” argument that The Economist‘s Babbage column pursued (see Lynne’s reaction to it), Wittenburg differs from Babbage in rather uncritically accepting smart grid ideas as a partial solution. (On the other hand, Wittenburg acknowledges recent upticks in transmission spending, even if judging the increase as insufficient to growing needs; Babbage didn’t mention the recent increases.)

But this uncritical attitude is not limited to smart grids, the problem with Wittenburg’s piece is that it uncritically passes along the views of various authorities without much in the way of a data point or countering view. The article draws on an interview with FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff in which the Chairman suggests FERC should have more transmission-siting authority. The article passes along the position of the Edison Electric Institute on how much transmission spending consumers would want to bear. The article quotes former FERC Chairman Jim Hoecker in support of transmission spending – “everybody needs them” – without mentioning that Hoecker is now an attorney representing a coalition of transmission-owning utilities and other groups with clear economic interests in building transmission.

Among other points where a little testing may have been useful, EEI’s David Owens is quoted as saying that transmission costs represent 35 to 40 percent of the typical consumers electric bill. That range seems high to me – I would guess at most 20 percent – but a quick scan of both the Energy Information Administration website and the Edison Electric Institute website didn’t turn up information on that point. I hope that Wittenburg verified the claim before publishing, but the apparent uncritical attitude toward official pronouncements leaves me unsure. But much more importantly, I would have much rather heard from a consumer’s representative on the question of what consumers might be willing to put up with on transmission expense, rather than see a representative of investor-owned utilities cast as presenter of the consumer viewpoint.

My complaint isn’t that Wittenburg drew on federal regulators and spokesmen for private utilities and transmission line owners. In fact, these parties along with state regulators and a few other federal, state and local government agencies are largely the folks responsible for building, maintaining, and regulating the transmission system we have. If anyone is to blame for the current system, these are the main folks to be talking to. But rather than asking them what they did to get to the current state of things, Wittenburg is asking them for advice on how to fix it.

Isn’t it not much of a surprise that the takeaway from the article is, in effect, spend more money and centralize more authority in Washington, DC. EEI, put into the role of consumer advocate for this article, is the only voice of a little moderation.

Is it that hard for a reporter to turn up a knowledgeable representative for power consumers? A fundamental problem with our electric power system is that widespread monopoly service combined with state retail rate regulation severely constrains the ability of consumers to express their value for electric service through consumer choices in markets. This article mimics this fundamental problem by failing to allow consumers to represent their own views.