Friday, September 28, 2007

A Tale of Two Grids

Airplanes are stuck on the tarmac, waiting to take off. The weather is clear and open, but the invisible traffic lanes in the sky are improbably congested. Planes wait for hours, passengers get frustrated, they call their congressmen, and the airlines get blamed.

An overloaded electric transmission line sags and touches a tree in Ohio. It shorts out and a cascade of overloaded lines radiates eastward, across into Canada, and down into New York City, blacking out everything in its path. First Energy, the utility in Ohio who owned the power line that triggered the blackout gets blamed. Fifty million people are without power.

What is the connection between millions of man-hours of air traffic delays and millions of people suffering power blackouts? The answer is an ossified grid.

The air traffic control system and the transmission grid are both stuck in the 1950s. Very little innovation or new investment has improved these systems, while the other parts of these industries, the airplanes and the power plants, have grown apace to keep up with demand that has doubled and re-doubled since then. As people travel more by air and use electricity ever more widely, the grids have became increasingly overburdened until breakdowns – massive delays and blackouts – are now commonplace.

A common element ties these two grids together, and it is not strictly government ownership. The air traffic control system does belong to the federal government; it is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, the long distance transmission grid is largely owned and operated by private electric utilities. The common element is not government ownership as such, but government control. Both grids, whether nominally owned by the government or not, in all essential decisions are operated by the government. Both are effectively government-controlled and operated.

The air traffic control system is stuck with ancient technology. As recently as the 1990s (and possibly still true today), key systems such as the TRACON radar in Long Island that controls the majority of international traffic entering the Northeastern United States, still used vacuum tubes. The invisible air traffic lanes that get congested in clear skies are air traffic routes that were devised in the 1950s and never updated. Air traffic controllers operate as members of a surly union that went on strike in the 1980s and had to be fired.

Satellites using global-positioning satellite (GPS) technology that could permit air traffic to go anywhere, using the entire sky as its "road,” have not been tried. An integrated system that ties airplanes' onboard radars into a central grid, permitting planes to travel closer together, has not been tried.

Government ownership of the airports complicates the problem. Airports are not managed to efficiently optimize takeoffs and landings and to integrate the schedules of all of the airlines. This can be accomplished very simply, and without any form of centralized control, through pricing. If airports were operated by private owners, those owners could set fees for landing slots that bring supply and demand into equilibrium at every point in the day. High landing fees during peak times will ensure that airlines do not over-schedule flights. They will schedule as many flights as the airport can handle, and no more, with the market price for those slots guiding their decisions.

When the airlines were ostensibly deregulated in the late 1970s, only the owners and operators of the planes themselves were freed from government controls on the pricing of airfares and on the scheduling of their routes. The rest of the infrastructure that makes the airline industry work, including the air traffic control system and the airports, remained in the hands of government. The government operators of this vital infrastructure have not kept up with the growth of the deregulated airlines. The government run air traffic control system and the airports have ossified. Growing delays on the tarmac have been the inevitable result.

The power grid suffers from similar problems. Although the transmission grid remains nominally in private hands, every important decision concerning the operation of that grid is dictated by government officials. All important decisions of pricing, construction of new lines, and even the permissible level of profit, are dictated by government boards that require many years of expensive hearings for the utilities to make any significant changes. The expense of such bureaucratic sclerosis and the lack of the opportunity to make a free market profit – in other words, the lack of an incentive to innovate – have conspired to stall grid construction. As a result, expansion of the grid has not kept up with the growth in electricity demand. It also means technological ossification, as the grid fails to use modern computerized technologies to operate more efficiently.

The grid today operates largely as a mechanical system using 1950s-era technology. In the same manner that water flows downhill, electricity travels solely down the path of least resistance. New technologies, such as solid state electronic control circuits to regulate power flows, are very seldom employed on the grid. These technologies can make the grid work more efficiently, driving more power through existing lines, more reliably, preventing problems in one area from cascading into large-scale blackouts. Such control circuits would have prevented a transmission line failure in Ohio from cascading until it became the 2003 Northeast Blackout.

A private owner competing to maximize profits does not run his business in such a lazy, slipshod manner as today’s utilities. The utilities in Ohio and elsewhere are legal monopolies, insulated from competition by law. For every one of their major operating decisions, they must ask permission from a dis-interested bureaucrat.

Like slaves, the regulated utility monopolies move slowly and at every opportunity look to shirk responsibility.

When slaves were freed, they could use their minds to pursue their self-interest. For the first time, they could aggressively and eagerly advance their own lives in a manner that they alone determined.

The only answer to air traffic delays and power blackouts is a similar abolition. It is the abolition of the shackles of government control. It is the freeing of the human mind to creatively come up with better ways of managing the grids. Government should simply get out of the business of air traffic control and the operation of the airports. Let private, profit-seeking individuals enter this business and watch them aggressively build out and innovate this infrastructure to keep up with the growth of the airlines.

Government should also simply get out of the business of managing the electric transmission grid. Recognize the true ownership right of the utilities that today ostensibly own the grid, and then get out of the way. Profit-seeking individuals will build new lines, run existing lines more efficiently with new technology, and the whole grid will more reliably and cheaply transmit power. Blackouts will not completely go away, just like airplane crashes and delays will not completely end. Human errors and natural disasters will happen, but human ingenuity will be free for the first time to make the system work at its best in reality.


Joe at Forces blog said...

Galileo: great post. I would add another factor delaying prgogress: government (including FAA) control over aircraft manufacturers, including design/imlementation of new aircraft navigation systems. This control impedes innovation and, on the manufacturers' side, has engendered a culture of complacency and fear of change.

Galileo Blogs said...


Thank you for your comment, especially given your expertise as an aerospace engineer (I got that from your blog profile). Would such FAA control over manufacturing also affect areas such as the use of composite materials for airplanes? I noticed that Boeing and, I believe more recently, Airbus, have been pursuing passenger jets made of composites. Was that development delayed by the government, and for how long?

On a separate note, a phenomenon that interests me is the connection between class-action tort attorneys and regulators, both of whom are heartily supported by Democrats (and to a sometimes lesser degree by many Republicans). The attorneys and regulators seem to work together. The attorneys win by getting big monetary awards, and the regulators win by expanding their power. They help each other with their respective goals. Do you see evidence of this in the aerospace industry?

Again, thanks for your observation. - GB