The lights start to flash at end of the blackout


IN ECONOMICS there's a heads for every tails, a pull for every push, and the happy reciprocal of the Blackout of 2003 will be the purchase of billions of dollars' worth of electrical transmission hardware.

Capital projects with 10-figure price tags are what the U.S. economy needs. We have too many factories, too much telephone cable and plenty of office buildings. Business investment has all but dried up as a result, with lugubrious economic effects.

What we don't have enough of are wires, switches, circuit breakers, poles and towers for moving electrical power across the land, a situation underscored by the recent northern darkness. Finally - a gaping need for durable business assets that will put workers to work.

Nobody could give me an authoritative estimate of what it will cost to bring the U.S. electrical grid up to par.

But presumably the expense will be large and amplified by recent events. It should generate decent business for companies such as Powercon Corp. in Severn, which makes the kind of high-voltage switches and circuit breakers that might have prevented or controlled last week's blackout.

Arizona Gov. and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has famously described the U.S. power net as "a Third World electrical grid." He exaggerates, but even the distance from second world (Romania?) to first will require major spending.

High-voltage transmission lines cost between $120,000 and $550,000 per mile on poles or towers and as much as $4 million a mile if they're underground - not including right-of-way costs. Energy authorities are talking about the need to add tens of thousands of miles to the country's 160,000-mile high-voltage grid. You do the math.

By itself, Operation Grid Upgrade will not make the economy boom.

It would be great if the folks in Oak Ridge, Tenn., figured a way to make cheap superconducting transmission lines - which would pipe juice with essentially no resistance - or struck upon some other Internet-caliber breakthrough that would transform the economy. But that's a very long shot.

The more likely outcome is billions in marginal investment in conventional technology, which would provide a substantial stimulus but no huge economic charge.

One study estimates the country will have to spend $56 billion this decade just to keep transmission quality at its present, inadequate level.

Even if we devote an equal amount to new lines, we're still spending only $11 billion a year. That's a nice sum, but it's less than one-third of President Bush's recent tax cut and represents an even smaller fraction of the $150 billion decline in annual U.S. nonresidential private capital spending since 2000.

Still, every little bit helps, and we have a double reason to make sure the investment can take place: the need for commercial stimulus and the requirement to stabilize the electric grid, which also has something to do with the economy.

The mere inability to tap nearby but inaccessible power costs electricity consumers billions a year. Outages cause much worse damage.

As usual, there are two ways to get the dollars flowing: government edict and the promise of profits. The electrical system has relied so much on the latter recently, with mixed results, that I suspect the former will play a significant part.

The grid's problem is that neither profits nor regulation have given much impetus to transmission-line investment. Broad deregulation of electrical generation caused profit-seeking investors to plow billions into power plants, but transmission prices and profits are still tightly controlled, and transmission has attracted far less interest from the capitalists.

As a result, some want to deregulate transmission, too. Allowing operators at grid bottlenecks to charge higher prices, the thinking goes, would lure investment precisely to where it is needed, which is no doubt true. The question is whether America is politically prepared to tolerate the swashbuckling and price swings that might come with broad transmission deregulation, and the answer is probably no.

PJM Interconnection, which coordinates the grid for Maryland and several other mid-Atlantic states, is one of the few regional networks that provides for higher transmission prices during congestion - a mild market mechanism called "locational marginal pricing," or LMP.

LMP may have helped PJM to fend off last week's blackout, and it ought to be implemented nationwide, but it seems limited in providing a capital-investment motive. Until America's politicians have the guts to pass power price swings along to the consumer who switches on the light in the kitchen, we won't have real deregulation.

Meanwhile, Congress, we need an energy bill.

Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is governor of New Mexico, not Arizona, as asserted in Jay Hancock's column in yesterday's Business section.The Sun regrets the error.
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