Greg Enright: IT’s voice can be powerful

The “Blackout of 2003” was barely 24 hours old when politicians and high-ranking utility representatives, to name but two groups, ascended their respective soapboxes and began hurling accusations at each other. The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, said the dastardly domino effect originated in Canada. Prime Minister Jean Chretien said the whole mess began somewhere south of the border. And Toronto mayor Mel Lastman was, well, just being Mel when he commented during his first press conference of the crisis that his advice to residents to shut down their washers and dryers wouldn’t be good for his son’s appliance business.

Madness seemed to be reigning supreme.

In the following few days, as power began to flicker back on across Ontario and the term “rolling blackout” became as familiar to the people of that province as it has been to Californians in recent years, cooler heads began to prevail. Energy experts began to creep more frequently into the news outlets, replacing the pontificating politicians. They began to breathe a bit of sanity into the situation as they sussed out the details of just what happened, and what the true cause of the catastrophe was.

Part of the picture that began to emerge was the existence of an outdated electricity supply system on both sides of the border. Decayed facilities and infrastructure began to give the lay person an image of a system seemingly held together in parts by gauze and duct tape. One nuclear power plant in Ohio was exposed for having a reactor that earlier had to be shut down due to football-sized hole in one of its reactors. As is the case with all such discoveries, the full picture sadly only began to come into full light after the shortouts hit the fan and the system collapsed.

The crisis, given official natural disaster status in Ontario, also exposed other “house of cards” type features about the eastern North American power grids – namely, the precarious economic structure that governs many parts of it. When utilities are operating under a system, such as in many regions of the U.S., where their profits rise with the amount of power they sell to customers, the public good is immediately sacrificed. The power is pumped out as fast as it can be, the utilities’ revenues rise, and the electrical grid is frequently pushed to the breaking point.

In the months ahead, these, and no doubt other, harsh facts about North America’s power grids will be exposed. Angry consumers will be clamouring for answers and remedies, as will businesses. The louder the clamouring, the quicker any change will be implemented.

Hopefully some of the most bellicose voices in that mix will come from Canada’s IT sector. Obviously, the act of “doing business” is today synonymous with IT. Without a dependable energy grid, the companies that produce IT products and offer computing services are severely compromised. There is an opportunity for Canada’s leading tech firms to play a leading role in ensuring no part of the country experiences a “Blackout of 2004.”