A recent post by TeacherKen on the editorial by Nicolas Kristoff focused on the "inequity" of home generators as an example of the dislocations of an unfair tax system. They both use the image of a home generator as opposed to an improved public infrastructure to make the point that these things happen because of an inequitable tax system that should tax rich individuals in order to build a first class public infrastructure. As policy, I'm "OK" with their point about the tax system. Their use of home generators as an image for that policy is misleading, distracting, wrong in important ways, and does not prove or illustrate their point. I'll be brief below the fold.
Nicolas Kristoff used individual (and expensive) generators in private homes to buttress his argument that taxes on the high income and wealthy (two separate categories) were inadequate to fund a proper infrastructure (link). TeacherKen summarizes and builds on that point in his post of November 20 (link).
The argument from equity is that while the rest of the world struggles in the darkness of a blackout, the homes of the high income and wealthy are brightly lit from their personal generators, insulating them from the suffering caused by an inadequate tax base to fund public investments (like a power generation and distribution system).
The connection they both draw is misleading; the assertion is probably wrong; and the discussion is inadequate. It needs to be corrected.
Power Distribution is a complex system. Power is generated from a few key points and distributed through a grid that is interconnected at various points and subdistributed finally to end users. That distribution grid is the very definition of a "complex system". Complex systems can get so complicated that it is difficult if not impossible to predict their behavior, let alone manage them. Power distribution is like that.
(Photo Credit: Bloomberg News; Ken Jones)
Complex Systems characterize our contemporary society. Complex systems, like the financial industry (symbolically represented as "the stock market" or "wall street"), electrical power distribution, the internet and something as seemingly prosaic as food distribution, characterize the organization of modern society. Complex systems can fail for unexpected, even unknown reasons. Complex systems can spin out of control, almost mysteriously. Complex systems are the subject of much advanced non-linear modeling and statistical analysis.
Complex Systems have vulnerabilities. At the end of Long Island, between Southampton and Montauk, homes and businesses are at the end of an unreliable network of powerlines and distribution points, 100 miles long, run on contract by a UK power management company whose performance in the recent hurricane has been widely criticized. It takes much less than a hurricane to disrupt electrical service. A truck running into a power pole 50 miles away can shut down electricity for tens of thousands of homes.
Complex Systems may be sabotaged by smart opponents. A recent study by a congressionally supervised research center identified weaknesses in the national distribution grid. These weaknesses could be exploited by a few people to disable power distribution nationally and plunge tens of millions of homes into darkness for months before the necessary repairs could be made.
Food Distribution is a complex and fragile system. The growth of corporate farms and the centralization and standardization of food production and food processing has made food distribution a fragile and complex system. Food distribution is vulnerable to failures at a few points in the transportation network and at a few points in production and distribution centers. Failures in the national food distribution system would exhaust food supplies in two to three days.
Decentralization is one strength of the internet. The internet is a complex system that is highly resilient. As a complex system, it suffers failures many times each day in different places and at different levels of the network. The system maintains itself through built in redundancy that automatically reroutes messages through alternate routes should a particular route fail. Decentralization and redundancy have been demonstrated as elements in reinforcing complex systems against random, or deliberately induced, failure.
Multiple Points of power generation is one solution to the instability of power distribution. Or perhaps that should read, "could be one solution." Windmills generating power are licensed to deliver power to the network in California. Water wheels generating hydro power in New England are licensed to deliver power to the network. Solar panels on the roofs of single family homes in Brooklyn are connected as supply centers to the distribution network. Multiple points of generation reduce the dependence of the distribution network on a few points of production across vulnerable infrastructure to local points of consumption.
Home Generators should be subject to licensing. Home generators that provide enough power to run an average home today (the average price of which is over $300 thousand) are in the $50 thousand to $100 thousand range. Smaller generators, like those referred to in the Kistroff/TeacherKen write-ups are convenience devices. Larger installations typically include buried fuel tanks sufficient for 7 to 10 days of continuous, heavy load, operation. These installations are monitored by the electrician that was licensed to install them through metering and on-line reporting. Local communities could require that, in an emergency, power available for use locally by the customer/owner would be limited and the balance of the power directed to the network to support local community requirements. It is reasonable to expect that power diverted from home use to local distribution could be sufficient to maintain key government, public saftey (police, fire) and public health (hospitals, clinics, etc) and other services in an emergency.
Home Generators become part of a distributed generation network. Decentralized power generation could be a boon to the community in an emergency and a delight to their owners in the event of an ordinary, inconvenient outage.
Distributed Power Generation is like local farming. By moving the points of production closer to the consumer and by increasing the number of producers, local farming strengthens the food distribution network. No one objects to that. Structurally, the idea of distributed power generation is the same thing.
A more equitable income and wealth tax system is desireable. There are many powerful reasons why. But it is a mistake to argue or imply that increased infrastructure investment is an alternative to decentralized electrical power production and distribution.
Infrastructure desperately needs investment. Antiquated infrastructure that struggles to support a modern economy does not need to be replaced. It needs to be rebuilt in a way that acknowledges the extraordinarily increased burden from the extraordinary increase in population, demands placed by an extraordinarily more complex economy, and risks created by a rapidly changing physical environment. Infrastructure is a so called "public good" and the cost of a new infrastructure needs to be shared equitably, for sure. But the investments we make in infrastructure have to be as smart as our problems are complicated.
Large Scale Home Power Generation could be a very good thing. Powered generators are one possibility. Extensive solar panel arrays on private homes feeding power to the network are another. Windmill fields and water wheels in more rural communities might be possible. Unlike the outcome suggested by Kristoff and TeacherKen, we're likely to have more of all these things, from public and private investment, at the government and family level, especially if the tax code is reformed as it should be.