No more excuses, Congress: Fix the grid


WASHINGTON - The largest blackout in American history occurred within a private-public system that emphasizes the generation of electricity more than its transmission.

More than anything, it should remind people of all political persuasions that this is why government exists and that the safe, reliable transmission of electricity is a modern economy imperative that common sense can provide far better than political ideology.

Of all the maddening ironies since the Northeast shut down Aug. 14, none is more infuriating than the fact that the problem and the most sensible solutions to it have been identified for years. Worse, giant steps forward via national legislation are not all that controversial and have advanced in Congress twice in recent years.

They can be summed up in one word - reliability. That is, reliability in the form of new, mandatory rules of the electricity road that together with new investment in transmission and switching equipment and technology can lead to a far better system than the mess that failed last week.

The new rules for a system that could work much, much better were part of comprehensive energy legislation that the House of Representatives passed on April 11. New rules were also part of comprehensive energy legislation that passed in the Senate on July 31.

The problem lies not in the specifics of these rules, but in the word "comprehensive." Major steps forward on the electricity front are essentially being held hostage to ideological and regional disputes over other energy issues. The most famous of these is the effort launched by the Bush administration two years ago to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and the environmental backlash this effort provoked.

Political obstacles to electricity legislation still need to be overcome. They include the opposition to national measures concentrated among generators of relatively cheaper power in the Southeast and Northwest. There is also a huge gap between the estimated need for new investment in transmission lines and modern equipment (approaching $60 billion) and the currently available capital (barely half that).

The simple fact is that a largely deregulated market for wholesale electricity supplies over the past decade has overwhelmed what had been an essentially voluntary system designed after the famous blackout of 1965 to make sure that cascading failures in the transmission grid could not happen again.

Two bureaucratic acronyms are necessary to paint an oversimplified picture of what is wrong - NERC and FERC.

NERC is the North American Electric Reliability Council, in existence since 1968 and an operation that sits atop various regional councils composed of electricity's private and public players. It has a variety of detailed rules and standards for the operation of the labyrinth of connected, high-voltage transmission lines that bring power to people and business.

These rules, however, are voluntary and cover a grid system that is now operated for purposes it was not built to serve and is having to deal with an exponential increase in the volume and complexity of demand. The new system of deregulated, wholesale markets has also made competitors out of companies that used to cooperate routinely on transmission matters. The rules, in short, are being routinely broken.

FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is assumed to oversee all this but doesn't, because it lacks the ability, the budget and the statutory authority. At least a third of the country's transmission operations exist beyond FERC's reach, and it obviously has no authority over the important parts of the bulk power transmission system that involve Mexico and Canada.

At a minimum, the answer that only national legislation can provide is national rules that are mandatory and fair to all electricity players in North America. The legislation already exists, and it is not very controversial, especially compared with the other elements of energy policy. After what happened last week, there is no longer any excuse for more delay.

In the meantime, the most important factor limiting the danger of more blackouts is probably the continued sluggishness of the U.S. economy. There is a widespread fear in the industry that at the growth rates of the late 1990s, the current system and its weak rules cannot operate reliably. You would think that would be incentive enough for the politicians to act.

Thomas Oliphant is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His e-mail address is

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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