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A Single European blackout

Posted by Richard Monday, November 06, 2006 , , , , ,

It is an absolutely classic response. The lights go out all over Europe – quite literally this time – and arch Europhile Romano Prodi is immediately bleating that Europe needs a central power authority.

This, says the erstwhile EU president and current Italian prime minister, is needed to prevent the kind of blackouts that left swathes of West Europe without electricity on Saturday night. He says there is a "contradiction" in having a unified power network but no central authority. "It is somewhat absurd," he adds.

Prodi's exudations are, of course, conveyed uncritically by the BBC website, as if it was perfectly natural that there should be a central authority.

But wait a minute! What about the Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE)? It is the association of transmission system operators in continental Europe, providing – by its own account - "a reliable market base by efficient and secure electric 'power highways'".

They have been in business for a mere 50 years and, through their networks, about 450 million people are supplied with electric energy; annual electricity consumption totals approximately 2300 TWh. Their slogan is, rather unfortunately, "UCTE keeps the lights on!"

Then there is the European Transmission Systems Operators association (ETSO). They are responsible for the bulk transmission of electric power on the main high voltage electric networks. TSOs provide grid access to the electricity market players (i.e. generating companies, traders, suppliers, distributors and directly connected customers) according to non-discriminatory and transparent rules. In order to ensure the security of supply, they also guarantee the safe operation and maintenance of the system.

Of course, the do not always get it right – as demonstrated by Saturday's outage. But, while this started in Germany and spread through France, parts of Spain and Italy, power was restored in a few hours. This does somewhat contrast with the worst European power blackout in recent times.

This only affected one country though, knocking out the supply to 95 percent of consumers, some for as long as 18 hours between 28 and 29 September 2003. And the country affected? Why, Italy, of course – which is why we quite obviously need a European central power authority (not).

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