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The Day The Wind Died

Tuesday, February 26, 2008, probably won�t be remembered in history books, but it should.

That evening, the wind suddenly stopped blowing in Texas. When banks of wind turbines quit spinning, electric utilities had to scramble to keep a blackout from rolling across the state.

Six hours earlier, a fire at a substation in Florida started a reaction that shut off electricity to a million Miami homes and businesses. It closed down two nuclear reactors, cut power to traffic lights, and trapped people in elevators until sundown, when power returned.

We rely on a staggeringly complex and fragile electric utility network that requires more attention and investment than it�s getting.

2/26/08 teaches a couple of large lessons.

One is that there are limits to the usefulness of renewable energy.

We should use more green power. Harnessing the sun and wind promises huge benefits in efficiency, productivity, and sustainability. But that Tuesday in Texas shows that when the sun sets or the wind dies, you need a ready alternative.

Large coal-fired power plants supply half the enormous amount of electricity we use in this country (coal fuels nearly all the electricity in Kentucky). Large nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams generate another one-fourth of the nation�s electricity. Those �baseload� plants bailed Texas out, and they will be supplying the vast majority of our reliable electricity for the foreseeable future.

A second lesson is that, just like roads and bridges, our electric utility network needs regular repairing and updating. And just like roads and bridges, those investments will cost a lot of money.

Utilities kept the Texas loss of wind energy from spreading by alertly cutting off customers who were paying lower electric rates in return for being willing to have their power interrupted in an emergency.

Even that kind of planning costs money. But it�s not a long-term substitute for building more and stronger power lines.

The Florida outage would have been worse except for safeguards put into the system after the August 2003 blackout that darkened eight northeastern states for nearly 24 hours.

So the good news is, we can learn from history. Let�s hope February 2008 is an effective teacher, and that we�re good students.

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