The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The L.A. blackout:
A system strained to the limit

Sep 26, 2005

On Monday, September 12, more than two million Los Angeles residents were left without electricity for more than an hour. Traffic jammed so badly, intersections were totally blocked, elevators stopped, people were stuck in garages and on top floors of high-rises without air conditioning. How many people's lives were endangered because their medical equipment failed? How many died? We'll never know.

DWP (Department of Water and Power) officials not only tried to play down the outage, they also tried to blame it on one "careless" worker who had snipped the wrong bundle of wires at a small power station. Then, to prevent the power failure from spreading to networks well beyond L.A. and to avoid extensive equipment damage, the DWP said, it had to cut off power to large parts of the city. Three days later, the DWP admitted that the worker who cut the wires had been given a faulty work order.

Whoever was at fault, errors like this may obviously happen once in a while. The real question is: how is it that one minor glitch can lead to the failure of the whole power network serving one of the country's most populated areas, and possibly beyond? Why were there no safeguards in place?

It's because L.A.'s power network, like the rest of its infrastructure, suffers the same problem as the infrastructure in the rest of the country. That is, L.A. is still using a system that was set up decades ago, when the population was much smaller. So the network is run at its limit, making it vulnerable to such large blackouts if one part of it fails.

Improvements on the L.A. grid, urged by engineers and DWP officials, have routinely been put off for being "too expensive." Never mind that the same politicians who say that there is no money for the maintenance of the infrastructure or public services always find lots of money to hand out to companies in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, contracts or "consulting" fees!

We literally can't live without electricity. Blackouts, even if for a short time, disrupt lives and can cause deaths. Power networks are too important to be left in the hands of capitalists whose only concern is the bottom line of their books, or politicians whose only concern is to funnel tax dollars to corporations.