Blackouts spotlight failing energy network

7th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 6, 2006 (AFP) - Blackouts across Europe on Saturday demonstrated the fragility of the continent's neglected power and transport networks, with spikes in heating demand during a cold snap plunging 10 million homes into darkness.

PARIS, Nov 6, 2006 (AFP) - Blackouts across Europe on Saturday demonstrated the fragility of the continent's neglected power and transport networks, with spikes in heating demand during a cold snap plunging 10 million homes into darkness.

The outage "showed clearly that there are weaknesses and shortcomings", French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said on Monday.

The lack of reliability in the continent's power delivery became evident when the failure of two high tension lines in northern Germany coincided with a surge in high demand.

Homes and businesses were left without power in parts of Germany, France, Spain and Italy for up to 30 minutes.

"To put it clearly, if there had been more than two lines in northern Germany, there would not have been a blackout," Patrick Larradet, administrator of the French electricity distribution network (RTE), told AFP.

But Germany's biggest power supplier denied on Monday that it was solely responsible for the weekend's outage.

Christian Schneller, spokesman for E.ON, told a local radio station that although a line did fail that day, "that alone cannot explain the problem".

"The disturbances only occurred half an hour after the shutoff," he explained.

Lack of production capacity is a second major concern, as years of underinvestment have left weak points which, if put under any further pressure, could potentially cause a total power cut across the whole of Europe.

"We must act now to create new capacities for production and transport, or we will be vulnerable to major outages happening much more often in the coming years," RTE president Andre Merlin told AFP.

Estimates of the investment needed to get the energy networks back on track by 2030 vary from several hundred billion euros to EUR 1,600 billion.

Many experts blame European Union deregulation and privatisation.

"From the moment the state relinquishes its prerogatives, the private market can start making mistakes, not investing enough in network infrastructure or production," said Christian Harbulot, director of the French School of Economic Warfare (EGE).

He noted there were similarities with California, where serious energy problems in 1999 repeatedly paralysed one of the biggest and richest economies on the planet.

"Deregulation and privatisation have put the brakes on reinvestment because they encourage short-term measures," Collete Lewiner, international director of energy at Capgemini consultants, explained.

But RTE's Merlin attributed problems in transporting energy not to a lack of investment but to stagnant administrative decision-making that held up the installation of new power lines, often under pressure from environmental campaigners.

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs responded to the blackouts by calling on Monday for a Europe-wide coordination of energy policies.

"These incidents show, once again, that events in one part of Europe impact on other parts and again confirm the need for a proper European energy policy," he explained.

"Energy security is better delivered thought a common European approach, rather than 27 different (national) approaches," he added.

The head of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), which represents 20 million members through its 403 affiliated national trade unions in 122 countries, called for an enquiry.

"There needs to be a proper pan-European investigation to ensure that it does not happen again," ICEM head Fred Hijjs said. "There is a need for some form of pan-European regulation of the network."

"I think this incident shows the difficulties you get when you get a number of companies responsible for generation and distribution, rather that being one single nationalized entity."

Extremists could also potentially hold the continent's energy supply hostage by exploiting a relatively small number of weak points in the network, the EGE's Harbulot warned.

"Blowing up a few electricity pylons by a motorway could cause a total blackout," he said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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