Robert Rand, BURN Editor
When you think about political power, electricity probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But when you think about the ability – or more importantly, the inability – of a government to deliver electricity to its citizens, the political nature of energy transmission becomes clear.
Ask any mayor or governor who worries about the wrath of constituents during extended power outages, such as those that occurred last year during Hurricane Sandy. The politics of Sandy were captured in this headline from the Associated Press: “Sandy a Super Test for Bloomberg, Christie, Cuomo.”
One of the first politicians to grasp the political nature of electricity was neither from New York nor New Jersey. He was Vladimir Ilych Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union. In the early years of the USSR the new Bolshevik government faced the daunting challenge of extending control over the vast Russian landmass. Lenin framed the issue this way: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”
Lenin understood that a government is as good as its grid. The ability to provide a reliable source of electricity is one of the most important measures of effective state governance. Lay a electrical grid across the land and the people will be satisfied and prosper.
In prosperous, developed countries, the grid is so well-established and electricity so plentiful that it’s taken for granted. Fail to lay down a reliable grid, or fail to make quick repairs when the power goes out, and a government’s credibility may tatter, with political, economic and social consequences to follow.
Which makes an event in the Middle East last week especially interesting. It happened in Syria, which is embroiled in a God awful civil war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has spent most of the past few months hunkered down in the presidential palace in Damascus.
Last Wednesday, Assad made a rare public appearance. He visited a power station in the city center.
Al-Assad’s message: Don’t worry, be happy. I can deliver electricity to the people of Damascus. I still have political power.
The problem, of course, is the conundrum Assad will face if anti-government fighters manage to turn off the lights.
This summer, BURN will feature a one-hour radio and multimedia special on our nation’s electrical grid system – how it was built, how it works, and what happens when it doesn’t. Follow us here, on Facebook, SoundCloud, and Twitter all next month to hear great excerpts, see photos, and learn more about America’s grid.