Power Is Not Free

Over at The Big Picture, the Boston Globe‘s awesome photo blog, there’s a series of pictures showing the aftermath of a catastrophe (probably an explosion) at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in south-central Russia on August 17. It is the country’s largest power plant. As the Big Picture reports, the cause of the accident is still unknown, but there were at least 74 fatalities and a massive oil spill. (Earlier: a coal-ash disaster in Tennessee.) [%comments]


Clearly turbine #9 failed catastrophically, likely a shaft failure from the looks of it. This has happened elsewhere in the world. The main problem seems to be that they do not have emergency bypass systems in place, since they should have shunted the flow much more quickly on detection of output loss, and so you would not have so much water damage. Not sure if this is just an older dam that was never retrofit (the stator plates look to be 1950s vintage) or poor design.
This is why these places say "keep out, authorized personnel only".


Not to be a crank, but what does this have to do with economics (or "freakonomics," etc)? Nothing, as far as I can tell. It doesn't even illustrate the notion tha t"power is not free."

This was a tragedy and it certainly qualifies as news. But this blog isn't really the place, is it?


@2 Risk is a cost, therefore HEP is not free.

Why this isn't under a heading of "things we already knew" is another question entirely.


As dozens of economists have said before, every decision involves an opportunity cost. The possible gains from building this dam might have outweighed the opportunity costs at a start. However, this catastrophe clearly shows that in truth, the opportunity costs were what outweighed the possible gains. This dam was obviously more of a hazard than an improvement. And, events such as this should have been considered before building the dam to be able to prevent them.


Apparently the cause was the gate at a turbine exit shutting with the gate at the entry shutting. The water had no where to go but up into the turbine room.


@Jonathan, where did you get that? They just released a report in the last few minutes saying that the turbine failed due to water pressure. That would be consistent with the shaft failure seen in the pictures. Closing an exit gate would not cause this since the exit gate would be held open by the pressure. Like most such systems, the inlet control system is what controls the feed.
Note that this dam was badly designed from the start and has had serious problems with overpressure, leaking through the concrete, and destabilization from the machine room side.
The Russians are theorizing a bad turbine, although it likely was at the end of its normal life.


Anything that makes your life better is awesome. And then there's the side effects. Power, like any other given thing in this world (time, labor, space, food, fame, reputation), has a cost of its own. In order to attain any amount of this 'power', one must give up something else, may it be time, labor, money, or whatever one is willing to pay for it. These assertions prove the title of this article right, but I don't believe that's quite what it is meant to mean.
Some goods attained, a lot of them actually, bring side effects with them to anyone that attains them. Used cars can bring trouble like the need of new parts and check-ups, birth control pills can result in diarrhea, children can carry with them the power to deprive you from sleep. Some side effects though, aren't as innocent. When one seeks something like power in this world of greed, the risks that such a
desire may hold are far greater than the insecurities of pharmaceuticals. This particular kind of power, for example, killed 74 in the course of a day. Now you ask yourself, "Is it worth it?", "Is it right?".
Unfortunately, we don't exactly live in a world of integrity. This is one where economy drives lives and the thirst for control and power never quench. Because of this, side effects tend to be greater than a mere rash; but may this incident serve as a lesson to us all in the quest for power or mere diet pills. When trying to acquire something, consider not only what it is currently costing you, but what it may cost you in the future and, if you believe in righteousness, how it may affect others. This goes to all you economists who are good at heart and may those souls lost that day forever rest in peace.



Lee: You think that 74 deaths is not a cost? Please could you give more personal ID, so that I can take care to avoid you.


I admit to being a little confused about how a massive oil spill resulted from damage to a hydroelectric plant. Took me a moment to realize it was almost certainly downstream, but clearly some safety regulations were not well designed, placing some large oil-containing building in the floodplain below the damn.


Oh wow, nope, it actually had 40 tons of transformer oil. I hadn't realized that particular consequence of a dam failure, before.

Hydroelectric does have a lot of costs and drawbacks, for a power source that is ostensibly free, which seems to have been the point here. I look forward to seeing whether solar has the same degree of challenges associated with it.