December 19th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Ameren-ron: Someone Finally Asking the Right Questions

Did you see the article by Joe Mahr in Saturday's St. Louis Post Dispatch, "The Power Outage Cycle"?

For me one of the greatest aggravations of the long chain of massive disastrous power failures that we've had since Ameren bought out Union Electric (four city-wide outages in three years) is how thoroughly Ameren CEO Gary Rainwater was getting away with changing the subject whenever the topic was raised. Almost every interview, whether under oath in front of the state legislature or on TV news or in the press, whether with Mr. Rainwater or one of his subordinates in public relations, has gone like this:

Q: "Why did so many people lose power?"
A: "We think the customers are, mostly, very happy with the quality of the power restoration work being done by the linemen."
Q: "Yes, but why did so many people lose power?"
A: "We support the linemen who are concentrating on restoring power as fast as humanly possible."
Q: "Yes, but why did so many people lose power?"
A: "We've brought in linemen from 12 (or 14) states to restore power as quickly as possible, and we think they're doing a great job."
Q: "Yes, but why did so many people lose power?"
A: "Nobody in the industry does a better job of restoring power after a disaster than we do."

And yet he gets away with it. Even though anybody who knows anything about electricity can tell you at least the proximate cause for why so many people lost power: because something's wrong with the parts of the system that are supposed to localize outages, the circuit breakers that are supposed to trip and the circuits that are supposed to shift loads or shunt them, to keep the main transmission lines and the various power distribution stations from suffering their own failures when small local lines are knocked down. Why are those parts of the system failing? We hear unattributed an anonymous reports explaining why, but none of those reports have ever been followed up on at all, let alone with the subpoenas it would take to get Ameren to tell the truth when they answered.

According to the article, Missouri's regulators are still mostly acting like shills for the company, but one or two of them are privately pushing the others towards adopting the same reliability standards, and compelling the same reliability statistics gathering, and ordering the same reliability studies, that other states like Utah have adopted. A few of them, not a majority yet but a vocal minority who are taking their case to the press, want the legislature to set aside around $50k to hire an outside engineering firm to check on Ameren's claims, an idea I fully endorse because it's done so much good in other states. And in Illinois, one of the top engineers for the Illinois Commerce Commission is also all over Ameren like a cheap suit now. And most importantly, it has finally gotten through to them in both states that they need to go back and actually make Ameren answer the question they bizarrely forgot to ask back in June: "So, Mr. Rainwater, why did the power go out?"