Power To The People

COMMENTARY Environment

Power To The People

Aug 20th, 2003 2 min read
Almost as soon as the lights went out in parts of the northeastern United States and Canada, those in the affected areas began wondering, along with the rest of us: Did terrorists do this? What a relief to find out they didn't. And how embarrassing to learn we did it to ourselves.

Whatever the precise, technical cause of the blackout, one thing is clear: Our energy situation is unsustainable.

The blackout demonstrated our thorough dependence on electric power. Indeed, life in modern America without it seems impossible. Yet the gap between consumption and production continues to widen: We keep using -- and demanding -- more energy, while failing to produce adequate supplies. Meanwhile, our aging energy infrastructure sorely needs upgrading, as this day of darkness illustrated. Unless we want to court more blackouts, along with dramatically more expensive energy bills, we can't let this continue.

Now that the immediate problems confronting the region are largely fixed and investigators are taking a closer look at what caused this incident, let's step back and take a brief look at the underlying needs of our energy system today.

First of all, many are blaming our energy problems on deregulation. This charge would be more plausible if deregulation existed throughout the system, but it doesn't; only the supply of electricity is deregulated. The problem occurred in transmitting and distributing this electricity -- and that delivery system remains regulated.

So while the generation of electricity has evolved into a competitive, deregulated environment, the delivery remains lodged in another era. This needs to change. We should make it more attractive for power companies to invest in upgrades and make it easier for them to set up new transmission lines. By doing so, we'll correct the imbalance between a deregulated supply of electricity and a regulated means of delivering it.

But we can't stop there. Our nation's entire energy policy stands in need of serious reform. However, federal lawmakers do little more than talk, despite warning signs such as the California energy crisis. They have debated many complex energy issues, yes, but they have failed to pass any comprehensive plan. Apparently, it's easier to delay, debate and obfuscate than to take the bold, decisive actions needed here.

Certainly, they have their reasons. They debate bills that pander to the extremists and leave America vulnerable to exploitation by our enemies. They succumb to pressure from those who continue to suck up energy but abhor any actual efforts to increase supply, uttering protests of NIMBY. They can't decide whether to slap restrictions on power companies that would retard energy production and damage the economy or allow environmentally responsible oil and natural gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

America needs an energy policy that produces stable, reliable and affordable energy. Demand for energy over the next 20 years will far outpace production unless the Congress can enact a responsible and balanced energy policy.

What would such a policy entail? There are several common-sense solutions we can pursue, and all revolve around the need to provide greater access to reliable, affordable energy. The first one is obvious: Upgrade the nation's energy infrastructure. By taking specific steps to improve congestion management on the power grid -- such as the use of newer technology that cuts down on the amount of power lost during transmission along the grid lines -- we can help prevent future blackouts.

Obviously, though, we need to do more than patch up the grid. We should:

Enhance domestic supplies through diverse fuel sources such as oil, gas, coal, nuclear and hydropower. Increase our oil-refining capacity. Reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Congress should prepare to buckle down and pass an energy bill that will increase the domestic supply and improve the delivery of reliable and affordable energy for America. Our politicians should try to exhibit the same problem-solving tenacity and teamwork as we saw New Yorkers and other Americans display as they coped with the blackout debacle. To do less would only set the nation up for even more energy crises -- and leave the rest of the world shaking its head in wonder.

Alison Acosta Fraser is director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire

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