NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Failure of a Dam in California Is Warning About the Grid

February 15, 2017

NCPA Senior Fellow David Grantham writes for Townhall:

What in the world does the frightening news about the Oroville Dam in California have to do with America's electric grid? Answer: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The California state government is scrambling to address the failing dam after heavy rains have damaged the main concrete spillway and water is now pouring over the emergency spillway for the first time in history.  The erosion of the natural barrier -- the last line of defense between Californians and the emergency spillway -- has prompted the evacuation of some 185,000 residents. Some outlets are even reporting that the dam might very well break, a mini-doomsday scenario for those in the immediate vicinity of the deteriorating infrastructure.

This brewing catastrophe might have been avoided had FERC acted some years ago to upgrade the capabilities of the dam, according to early reports. A motion was filed with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, "urging federal officials to require that the dam's emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside," Mercury News writes. FERC officials, however, rejected the fix, arguing that the upgrades were "unnecessary" when compared to the costs; and they called "overblown" the scenario that enough water could accumulate to overwhelm the emergency spillway. FERC concluded the assessment with its age-old mantra that dam's safety measures met "engineering guidelines."

These are the same phrases FERC uses to explain why they have not required greater protection of the electric grid. When industry leaders and FERC officials are faced with questions about the fragility of America's grid system, the potential for damage to the grid from high impact threats and the possibility for prolonged blackouts, both groups routinely call the threats overblown, suggest that recommended upgrades are unnecessary and fall back on the mediocre conclusion that the grid "meets required guidelines."  

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