This Was a First World Blackout

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson got it exactly wrong when he issued yesterday’s sound bite of the day about the blackouts that affected much of the Northeast. “We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid,” Richardson zinged, landing himself in the second paragraph of a New York Times story. The former energy secretary is right in the sense that the American electrical infrastructure needs updating, but he’s wrong about the nature of the problem: It’s a First World, not a Third World, one.

That’s the assessment of Benjamin Carreras, a physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. A Third World country, Carreras says, experiences frequent, small blackouts, not rare and massive ones like Thursday’s. “In a Third World society, the situation would be very different, because you would get a lot of blackouts,” small, localized ones that happen all the time, Carreras says. “But the small blackouts make the large blackouts less likely.” Because the electrical grid in the United States is overloaded to the breaking point, the country has to make a choice in the short run, according to Carreras: Either tolerate lots of minor Third World-style blackouts or put ourselves at risk for rare, gigantic, First World-style ones.

An article on the Nature Web site last year discussed research that Carreras and his colleagues published in the journal Chaos. In a Third World system, Nature explained, “the tension in the network gets released in many small jolts rather than a big paroxysm. But it would be hard to persuade power companies to permit such small failures, Carreras admits.” The upshot: “Power grids are inherently prone to big blackouts. … Trying to make them more robust can make the problem worse.” That’s because the elimination of small blackouts “can hasten the build-up to the point where a big cascade of blackouts becomes inevitable.”

The United States is so dependent on electricity that it requires a very reliable, very interconnected, very First World grid—the exact kind that we have. But that demand for reliability—and the intolerance for small blackouts—creates the risk for blackouts like yesterday’s. Third World countries can generally put up with frequent minor blackouts, because electricity is less important in the Third World than the First World. “In the Third World, if the electrical grid goes away, you can keep cooking, and you can do a lot of things, because not everything depends on electricity,” Carreras says. In the United States, on the other hand, “the airports aren’t working, the water system in Cleveland isn’t working. That’s our vulnerability—we are extremely interconnected.”

So, according to Carreras, it’s the very reliability and interconnectedness of the American electrical grid that caused Thursday’s blackouts. That reliability and interconnectedness exists because of the huge demand for electricity in American life, and because the American economy relies on electricity to function. But until we’ve created a system with more transmission capacity than the current one, we’re putting ourselves at risk for massive blackouts like yesterday’s. That’s a problem, but it’s not a Third World one.