The Lessons of a Breakdown
A Le Monde Editorial
Saturday 16 August 2003
For a long time electricity represented a symbol of progress, human liberation, and man's victory over nature. The gigantic breakdown which hit the United States and Canada on Thursday August 14 demonstrated, if it was still necessary, how fragile our society has become as a result of dependence on this source of energy. It is also proof of the damage a botched privatization based on short term private sector profits can do.
Americans and Canadians each refer responsibility to the other for this incredible dysfunction, the actual causes of which remain unknown. Without waiting for the results of the inquiry, numerous experts point to the dilapidation of the infrastructures. A single figure sums up the size of the problem: Americans have invested as much in their distribution network as Great Britain, for ten times the level of consumption.
"We are a superpower with a third world electricity network", acknowledges Bill Clinton's former Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson. Created for the most part in the immediate post-war period, the distribution system has not been modified to meet the ever growing demands of 270 million Americans and 31 million Canadians, who are less attentive to saving energy than Europeans.
The development of all-electric in homes as well as businesses and the endless growth of the share of information technology have subjected the inapt networks to too much pressure. It's enough for the sun to be a little brighter for the air conditioners to go on full blast. This activity entails a significant increase in energy consumption that may explain the difficulties, even the breakdowns of the networks.
The world's biggest energy consumer has always worried about its sources of supply. Electric generators have been built, but electricity distribution has hardly been considered because it's not a profitable activity. Moreover, the private operators who divided the privatized network among themselves have small interest in investing in a domain that risks bringing new competitors within their sphere of activities. All the more so, as their sole interest is profit, sometimes even at any price, as the Enron scandal demonstrated, or to the detriment of the public, as we saw in May 2001 in the state of California.
It would be useless to single out the failures of the American electricity network, since what happened in California and in New York had already happened in France in 1978 and risks happening here again, or elsewhere in Europe. We are not sheltered from generalized electric breakdowns, especially if electricity has to submit to the law of a totally deregulated market and lose its specific public service character. In this, as in other matters, it is up to Europeans to learn the lesson from North American failure.
Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.