A recent massive power outage in western Europe (article) makes an interesting case study for the high reliability and normal accident theories outlined in this week’s Sagan reading. Apparently our new friends at E.ON made a little mistake in shutting down a line over a river for a ship to pass. The result was darkness in millions of homes across Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and even Morocco. Although the accident didn’t involve a major safety concern, many aspects of the event can be related to the two theories. Particularly, the issues of redundancy and decentralization are raised in Romano Prodi’s call for a common European energy policy. Would such a policy have prevented the accident? A normal accidents theorist might say so. He or should would probably claim that the accident was a result of redundancy “increasing interactive complexity and opaqueness and encouraging risk-taking.” Furthermore, the redundancy and overlap of the power grids may have complicated the problem. The high reliability theorists would argue with Prodi that the current “decentralized decision making is needed to permit prompt and flexible field-level responses to surprises.”
Although safety wasn’t involved here, the power industry is one that should be concerned about massive disasters, especially in Europe where so much of the power is nuclear. And of course, the event has implications and could raise concerns for us here in Lexington, since E.ON is our provider as well. That said, I am taking my stand with the high reliability theorists. The competition fostered by decentralization, especially in the power industry, should typically result in fewer accidents as there is the added pressure on the power suppliers to not only provide power, but to provide power more safely and regularly than their competitors.