Ahhh, The Grid
Remember the episode of "M*A*S*H" when Radar was trying to impress
a nurse who was a classical music fan? Hawkeye and B.J. trained him
to say, "Ahhh, Bach," whenever she mentioned Bach. Inevitably,
though, she asked what he knew about Bach, and the truth came
A similar thing is going on now in Congress. Mention the recent
blackout that turned out lights and-more critically on that
day-air-conditioners from New England to the Midwest, and certain
members of both houses say, "Ahhh, the grid." But ask them what
they want to do about it, and it turns out they're as prepared for
that question as Radar was to discuss Bach's "Mass in B
Yes, inadequacies of the grid caused the blackout, which left
millions without power for up to a week. But to respond to that
crisis as some members of Congress advocate is to ignore almost all
of what is actually a big, big picture.
Demand for electricity will climb 20 percent over the next decade
and 50 percent over the next 20 years. But, under present policies,
transmission capacity will expand just 6 percent in the next 10
years and perhaps 10 percent more in the decade after that,
according to the Energy Information Administration. This after a
decade in which demand for power rose 30 percent but transmission
capacity climbed just 15 percent.
Moreover, most of today's transmission systems aren't designed to
deliver large amounts of power over long distances between utility
systems. They're designed to deliver power from a utility's
generating facilities to its customers. Yet, the movement of power
from one region to another will increase as competition increases
among wholesalers. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
actively encourages this.
So, given that saying, "Ahhh, Bach," isn't a serious option, what
can lawmakers do?
Grant FERC limited-emphasis on limited-authority to choose sites
for transmission lines in designated "interstate congestion areas."
A big part of the reason transmission capacity has fallen so far
behind demand is that finding a place to build infrastructure has
become increasingly difficult, thanks to the powerful Not In My
Back Yard, or NIMBY, movement. The problem is particularly acute in
areas near state borders, where constituents on each side try to
push the plant into the other state. Congress should let FERC break
Streamline the permitting process for extending power lines across
federal lands. Today, the process involves seeking permission from
multiple agencies at multiple levels of government. It needs to be
simplified, under the Department of Energy, so that deadlines are
met and decisions are made in a reasonable time frame.
Repeal the Public Utility Holding Company Act, a New Deal-era
statute that makes it difficult for firms to acquire and divest
power assets and hampers their ability to enter new markets. The
Securities and Exchange Commission, which administers PUHCA, has
recommended its repeal since the 1980s. Doing so would attract new
investment to the industry.
Allow utilities to depreciate their transmission facilities more
quickly. Currently, they depreciate over 20 years. Make it 15,
which is more in line with similarly capital-intensive industries.
This would encourage them to modernize and expand capacity. And,
because this measure would hold down the cost of capital, it would
mean utilities could upgrade without significant rate increases for
Today, the playing field is tilted against American utilities,
which increasingly will face competition for capital from foreign
firms. According to the American Council for Capital Formation,
U.S. firms recover 29 percent of their investment in transmission
lines in five years. Canadian firms recover half theirs during that
period, Korean firms nearly 75 percent, and firms in Thailand and
the Netherlands recover nearly all their investments in that
Worse yet, transmission investments don't compare well even with
other similar investments by American firms. For instance, the
scrubbers used in electricity plants recover 60 percent of their
cost in five years, and engine blocks, factory robots and
wastewater treatment equipment for pulp and paper production
recover nearly 80 percent of their costs over five years.
Congress need not know the intricacies of utility transmission to
help with this problem. Congress needs merely to understand that
the cost of capital stands in the way of a modern, resilient,
blackout-resistant power grid. And that the time to address this
problem is now-before the next big blackout occurs.
Charli Coon is a
senior analyst for energy and the environment at The Heritage
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire