In more ways than one. On Saturday night, between 2230 and 2300 local time, a huge chunk of the European power grid fell over, affecting supply from northwest Germany, through Holland and Belgium, and mostly in France. Further afield, small areas of Austria and Italy lost power, and the Spain-Morocco interconnection was shut off to prevent the trouble spreading. Fortunately, power was restored speedily.
At the heart of the whole thing, meet the cruise liner Norwegian Pearl. This floating gin palace was recently completed by the Meyer Werft shipyard on the river Ems in northwestern Germany. Now, Meyer’s shipyard is a long way up the river. To get a ship the size of the Pearl out, you have to wait for a spring tide. But there’s a catch – just downstream of the yard, a 400 kilovolt transmission line belonging to the German utility company E.ON crosses the river. And the more water there is in the river, the less clearance there is under the wires. So, on Saturday night, when the weather and the tide were perfect for Captain Thomas Teitge to take the ship down the river, E.ON switched the wires off. And then the troubles began.
Update: She sailed today without further trouble.
On the same evening, another big transmission line was offline for maintenance. And a thin wind was cutting down the North Sea from the Arctic, bringing central Europe the first snow of the winter – driving up demand for power with one hand, but also setting the German wind power industry’s turbines spinning merrily on the sandbanks of Schleswig-Holstein. Suddenly, there was heavy demand for power to the South and ample supply to the North, but only one wire between the two. It overloaded and the automatic circuit breakers tripped.
As they did on all the other lines it was connected to, in a classic cascade failure in a large networked system. The next utility down the line, RWE in the Ruhr, cranked up 1,000 megawatts of coal and gas-fired power as the grid wilted, but it was all too late and the mess had landed. Patchy blackouts shot across western Europe. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Pearl was waiting at the dock gate – the E.ON reliability controller having acted on the principle of “turn it off and turn it back on again” and switched the line over the Ems back on. For reasons that ought to be clear, they weren’t willing to do any more experiments that evening.
That just left an extensive exercise in blamestorming. The Nordrhein-Westfalen and Niedersachsen state governments went to bat for their own clientele – NRW and RWE blaming the wind industry and Niedersachsen blaming RWE for not taking enough gas capacity off line to balance increased wind output, while everyone blamed that pesky ship. Nuclear lobbyists naturally announced that with more nuclear power it wouldn’t have happened – although the biggest failures were in France, on the territory of the world’s most powerful electricity system, 90 per cent nuclear and a net exporter of power. Whoever’s fault it was, it wasn’t (as the Guardian claimed) due to a lack of electricity – rather, a cockup in managing a large networked system.
Fortunately, E.ON has done a public service by carrying the can. Now, perhaps, we can actually start thinking about the solutions. It’s hard not to agree with Romano Prodi that – as a European grid exists – there ought to be European management of it. Some coordination exists, through UCPTE for Germany, the Benelux countries and France, and NORDEL for Scandinavia (the UK will soon be interconnected with NORDEL as it is with France), but it’s frankly surprising that an explicitly technocratic project like the EU, founded on the principle of neo-functional spillover, hasn’t integrated something as technocratic, international and important as its power grid yet.
I forgot. There are still crucial items on the agenda like “The Word Solidarity Isn’t In the European Constitution – The Brits Want to Outlaw Being Nice” and “I’m Sure I Saw a Federal Express Van outside – It’s All A German Plot”.