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When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America

Author(s):Nye, David E.
Reviewer(s):Neufeld, John

Published by EH.Net (March 2011)

David E. Nye, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.? x + 292 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-262-01374-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Neufeld, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

David Nye, Professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark, has previously (in his well-received Electrifying America) discussed the enormous impact electrification has had on all aspects of American life. In this book he tackles the issue of what happens when electricity has been temporarily cut off. Nye?s very readable writing style enables him to target an audience beyond academia; indeed, his previous work has been reviewed by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. In this book, Nye uses an even-handed approach that tries to present both sides of any argument. This is often very well done — and well-served by his deep knowledge of the ways in which electricity structures modern life and in his use of psychological and sociological theory to explain human behavior. He is weaker on issues involving economics and technology. Although not at all polemical, his final conclusion is unrealistic and does not do justice to the work that precedes it.

Nye begins by tracing the energy revolution that began in the eighteenth century and led to the development of large electrical grids. The earliest electrical utilities covered small areas and were not interconnected; outages were frequent but confined to small areas. The development of hyper-complex electrical grids covering large geographical areas not only made large-scale blackouts possible; he argues they are inevitable. Although small-scale outages are still common, it is the loss of electricity over large areas, their causes, and the reactions to them, that interest Nye.

Nye first examines the World War II blackouts that sought to extinguish lighting but not eliminate all use of electricity. Quite a bit of effort was devoted in the U.S. to organizing blackouts until it became apparent that bombers were not going to be a serious problem. Most of the discussion of wartime blackouts concerns Europe, where blackouts were a major civil-defense activity that was ultimately not very effective, but also dissimilar in effect to unplanned total electricity outages.

The 1965 and 1977 blackouts affecting large areas in the Northeast receive the most attention, although New York City in both cases is the only affected area examined in detail. The loss of the technological infrastructure caused a type of social regression in both cases. In 1965, this meant people rediscovered their neighbors, the barriers between strangers and across economic classes fell — and a mood of bonhomie prevailed. In 1977 there was anarchy including riots and looting. Nye uses psychological and sociological principles to explain why the social compact seemed to strengthen in the first case and dissolve in the second.

Two other situations involving power outages are discussed: the rolling blackouts primarily experienced by California in the summers of 2000 and 2001, and the blackout of 2003 that affected a large area from Ohio to New York. The discussion of the California blackouts primarily focuses on the history of deregulation in California that preceded the crisis. A fuller use of economics would have enabled a stronger explanation of the adverse incentives created by the flawed California system and the conditions that resulted in electricity suppliers possessing and exploiting considerable market power. The discussion of the 2003 blackout centers on the issue of whether large-scale electricity grids are so complex that failure is normal. Although acknowledging the view that blackouts result in changes that make the grid more robust, Nye suggests that we should move away from large-scale interconnection.

A strong chapter with a very balanced approach considers whether terrorist activity threatens the electrical grid. A number of ways this might be done are considered, the most serious being the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) resulting from the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Even a small explosion might create an EMP that destroys integrated circuits over a very large area. Such destruction could cripple both the production and use of electricity. There are possible counters to all threats, however, and other types of attacks might better achieve a terrorist goal of inducing panic in the population, and effectively crippling electricity supply for an extended period might be difficult to do.
Nye?s final chapter provides his solution to the problem of blackouts: we should become ?greener.? Electricity consumption could be reduced as evidenced by the voluntary ?green-outs? that have occurred in several cities of the world. Electricity (and other forms of energy) are over consumed in this country, but Nye does not discuss this in the context of the mispricing of electricity and of the ubiquitous subsidies received by all forms of energy production in this country, including nuclear power, non-renewable sources, and even renewable energy sources. There are significant negative externalities to all forms of energy consumption, although some forms are far worse than others. Instead of policies seeking to internalize those externalities, we have embraced policies sometimes designed to encourage switching among energy sources, but always to encourage overconsumption of energy.

An aspects of Nye?s green strategy involves the use of smaller grids, less interconnection, and greater dependence on renewable sources such as solar and wind. The characteristics of both solar and wind power, however, mandate the use of larger grids with greater interconnection. Both of these alternative power sources are often located at a distance from consumption centers. The exploitation of offshore wind power is an obvious example. An even more serious problem arises from the tremendous variability in the output of these energy sources. Electricity is far more valuable if it is available when wanted rather than when the wind or sun happen to be providing it. Absent a far less expensive means of storing energy than we now have, the best way to ?steady? the production of this type of energy is to interconnect production in areas where the weather may be different, and to interconnect these energy sources with more controllable (even if otherwise less desirable) electricity from more conventional sources. Hydropower has some similarities with wind and solar power: it is often located far from consumption centers, and the output depends on water flow, which is subject to seasonal and random fluctuation. It was for these reasons that the areas in the United States where large-scale grids were first developed, including California and the Southeast, were precisely those with the greatest dependence on hydropower. Variability is a greater problem with solar and wind power than with hydropower. It is hard to see how a shift away from other power sources towards wind and solar can occur without a more robust large-scale grid than we now have.

John Neufeld is Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.? His current research project is on the development of the U.S. transmission network in the 1920s.

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Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII