Blackout Signals a Broken System

Posted September 19, 2003 at 10:04am

To those critics who question the need to update America’s deteriorating electricity transmission system, the blackouts of Aug. 14 left them reeling with a big black eye. On a seemingly normal summer day, with no unusual weather patterns or stresses to the system, the lights went out during a nine-second cascade of power plant failures that left 50 million people in the Northeast, Midwest and parts of Canada in the dark.

The chaotic scenes of the Great Blackout were everywhere. Major cities, including New York and Detroit, were without power. Business came to a halt.

Workers were stuck in dark, cramped elevators for hours; subways stopped, imprisoning those inside. Thousands of people milled about in the streets and walked down the sides of freeways trying to get home. Water systems failed and millions of cellular telephone users could not get signals to make urgent calls.

Those who experienced the helplessness of that fateful day were painfully reminded of how immensely our daily lives and modern economy depend on reliable electricity. As part of our ongoing effort to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure and to prevent future blackouts of this magnitude, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held two hearings on Sept. 3 and 4 to gain a better understanding of what took place on that history-making day.

Among those who testified were Energy Secretary Spence Abraham, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Pat Wood, North American Electric Reliability Council President Michehl Gent and other key public officials and utility organizations from the affected areas. All were asked for their assistance in the investigation into the causes of the blackout and in helping Congress fully understand what happened and how to prevent future blackouts.

We do know that the blackouts caused the loss of 62,000 megawatts of electricity over 34,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, all of which lost service in a period of about nine seconds. But it will take some time before the exact cause of the blackouts is pinpointed. In the meantime, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will continue its work with the involved parties and the U.S.-Canada task force to find the answers.

Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, these kinds of blackouts can and should be prevented if Congress enacts, as part of a comprehensive energy bill, legislation to modernize our nation’s electricity infrastructure. The blackouts came as no surprise to those of us who for years have been working to modernize America’s electricity grid. We have long known that our electricity infrastructure was vulnerable and subject to intermittent blackouts and brownouts.

In fact, the energy bill passed by the House earlier this year (H.R. 6) was crafted to prevent such devastating blackouts. The bill contains important measures that will help to attract new investment into the industry and ensure the reliability of our nation’s electricity grid. The bill provides for enforceable mandatory reliability standards, incentives for transmission grid improvements and reform of transmission siting rules.

Mandatory, enforceable reliability standards, regardless of the type of facility, are key to the dependable operation of the interstate transmission grid. Yet these rules are currently voluntary, because neither FERC nor the organization that establishes these rules, NERC, has authority to enforce compliance with those rules. The energy bill empowers NERC, under FERC oversight, with the authority to establish and enforce mandatory rules to ensure the reliable operation of the interstate transmission grid.

Ensuring reliable electricity also requires investment. The bill repeals the long obsolete Public Utilities Holding Company Act allowing investors to pump billions of dollars into our nation’s transmission infrastructure. Another barrier to new investment are siting restrictions at the state and local levels. The energy bill lifts this barrier by expanding construction of new power lines on federal and private lands.

Although modernizing the nation’s electric grid is essential to stopping future blackouts, these reforms are meaningless if we do not have the fuel to power our electricity plants. America is facing a natural gas crisis caused by heavy federal restrictions on the exploration of natural gas offshore and on non-park federal lands. With 95 percent of new power plants expected to be fueled by natural gas, the House energy bill will allow for more natural gas exploration, transportation and development to help ensure a reliable and affordable flow of electricity into our homes and businesses.

Reliable and affordable electricity is only one component of securing America’s energy future. At the same time, we must modernize our energy efficiency and conservation laws. According to Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the energy efficiency and conservation provisions in the House Energy bill will “eliminate the need for 130 new power plants (300 [megawatts] each) by 2020.”

Clearly, America’s energy policy would not be complete without the sensible energy production and conservation measures contained in the House bill.

The events of Aug. 14 reveal the stark reality of our dependence on the nation’s electric grid. The clear vulnerability of that grid highlights the urgent need for Congress to enact a comprehensive national energy bill this year.

As co-chairman of the House-Senate energy conference, along with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), I can say with confidence that we are now closer than ever to seeing a national energy policy become a reality this year.

We can and we must deliver an energy bill to the president’s desk in the coming weeks. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer. Our economy and the health and safety of our citizens are at stake.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.