The Spark

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

The heat may be unavoidable, but not the power outages and deaths

Aug 7, 2006

As a heat wave swept across the U.S. in the second half of July, so did a wave of power outages.

In Southern California, 1.1 million Edison (SCE) customers, that is, almost one out of four homes and businesses served by SCE, lost electricity between July 17 and July 28. Probably close to 200,000 customers of the Department of Water and Power (DWP), which serves the Los Angeles area, also lost power.

Almost all these power outages were caused by failing equipment, especially transformers that blew from overheating. Some customers were left without electricity for as many as five days.

Outages spread across the whole country, two of the biggest being in St. Louis and New York. After a storm, at least 600,000 homes and businesses were left without electricity in St. Louis, some for as many as five days. In New York, 100,000 customers in Queens didn’t have power for ten days in scorching heat.

In Southern California and New York, utility officials rushed to say that the outages were unavoidable, because the equipment couldn’t have withstood the unusual spell of sustained high temperatures. It didn’t take long for the truth to come out, though. Some of the failed transformers were 40, even 50 years old. Parts of the distribution systems had not been upgraded since the 1930s, even though the load on them had increased many times since then. DWP officials admitted that they had known for years that the system needed upgrading.

All of these companies apparently decided to let the transformers blow first and change them later. And they didn’t do this because of a lack of money. This is one way how they increased their profits, and most privately-run utility companies have been very profitable in recent years. Edison International, the parent company of SCE, for example, made 1.14 billion dollars of profit in 2005, 750 million of it in Southern California.

The customers paid the price, especially the sick and elderly. In California, at least 141 deaths were linked to the heat wave, nine of them in Los Angeles. It’s of course difficult to know exactly how many of these deaths are directly caused by a loss of electricity. In Missouri, a dozen deaths were said to be caused by the power outage directly, but it’s rare for this kind of information to be available.

Still, everybody knows that these deaths will happen, and it’s criminal to allow even one such death when it can be avoided.

But that’s exactly what power companies did. They made conscious decisions to increase their profits instead of spending money on necessary maintenance, knowing full well that this would result in power outages, with all the horrible consequences.

What’s even worse is that these same companies are now trying to use these power outages to demand new rate increases!

No, they not only shouldn’t get rate increases – they shouldn’t be allowed to keep their hands on such a vital public service.