Saturday, August 16, 2003

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Blackout I: Vulnerable grids

Thursday's blackout, largest in U.S. history, shockingly exposed that our electric power grids have not been secured and upgraded to the degree needed in a post 9-11 world. Fifty million people from New York to Michigan, including northern Ohio and southern Canada, were left without power. It almost surely was not a terrorist attack, but had it been, the authorities a day later couldn't even identify with certainty where it came from. Friday, they suspected the sudden, huge power swings that triggered Thursday's cascading grid shutdown started somewhere along the massive Lake Erie Loop.

One disturbing certainty has emerged: The nation's transmission capacity has failed to keep pace with the demand for power. That leaves the United States vulnerable to electric power gridlock that could put homeland security at risk. Congress and the president need to swiftly create incentives to attract investors to build a power transmission system worthy of a superpower.

"We're the world's greatest superpower," said former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, "but we have a Third World electricity grid."

It's not as if Congress wasn't warned. The Washington Post reports that two years ago, David Cook, general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Council, testified the next major grid failure wasn't a question of whether - but only when - it would occur. Last year, NERC officials warned transmission grids had become so unreliable it would take $56 billion to upgrade them.

Utilities own most transmission grids. Energy deregulation spurred power trading across regions, but utilities have been slow to invest in transmission towers and other infrastructure without an OK from regulators to raise rates. Federal officials have tried to persuade power companies to expand multi-state grids, but regional rivalries have kept some utilities leery of creating a more wide-open transmission system for fear cheaper power elsewhere will suck away their customers.

Congress should refuse to accept second-rate transmission grids too limited to handle U.S. power demand. Cinergy is linked to the massive Eastern Interconnection grid that stretches from the Eastern seaboard to the Plains states and also to a smaller 14-state grid run by Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator Inc. The Tristate may have more grid options than, say, New York, on the edge of a grid, but we all lose when our cities go dark. Every American has a stake in demanding more reliable transmission.

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