Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent
Americans take the electrical supply for granted. But the Grid – the system that transmits electricity to homes and offices – is aging and prone to serious glitches. Engineers say that across the country blackouts are increasing at an alarming rate. The next president will have to address the Grid – and the rest of the country’s crumbling infrastructure. In the second segment of a four part Blueprint America radio series, a report on how Barack Obama and John McCain say they will keep the lights on.
Evidence of just how rickety the country’s electrical grid has become turned up on the afternoon of August 14, 2003. A small glitch in the grid in Ohio cascaded around the northeast, building in strength as it went, until finally it became a massive blackout that affected eight states and parts of Canada. Roger Anderson is a Columbia University scholar and consultant to electrical utilities. He says the Great Blackout of 2003 demonstrated what happens when the grid, which was built in the twentieth century, confronts twenty-first century problems.
“You’re helpless unless you have something that thinks faster than people do, in order to stop something that travels at almost the speed of light.”
Anderson says it’s even worse: the fundamental technologies that underlie the grid actually date back to the nineteenth century. Which means the risk of blackouts isn’t the electrical supply’s only problem. For example, he says, if half of the power that flows through the grid goes nowhere, it’s just wasted.
“If you could get it to 100 percent efficient, you’d have double capacity for the present, electricity grid. And we desperately need to move to an electric economy, to get off an oil and gas economy.”
In other words, Anderson says, the grid as it exists now could never manage to charge the millions of electrical cars slated to hit the road in just a few years. Both John McCain and Barack Obama say they support what Anderson and other engineers call a “Smart Grid” – one that uses high technology to move electricity like the internet moves information. But the candidates disagree on how the country should get there.
Frederico Pena, the former Secretary of Energy and a policy advisor to the Obama campaign, says the federal government has to take the lead.
“We have a series of national laboratories around the United States which are under the Department of Energy’s jurisdiction. Why not task all those terrific scientists, who years ago during the Cold War built nuclear weapons… encourage them to use that human capital to study these kinds of new technologies and the electrical grid system?”
The McCain campaign’s position is to prompt electrical utilities to do that research themselves, as they have traditionally. Douglas Holtz-Eakin is the Republican nominee’s senior economic advisor.
“We need to have a dramatically different electricity sector, so they must see a reason to put a smart grid in place, and we must give them the ability to recover the cost of those R and D enterprises. So when the regulators permit them to recover costs, and incentives are in place for them to change their business model, I think we can see them step up and meet the needs of the country.”
Historically, U.S. electrical utilities have spent less than foreign firms on research and development. Holtz-Eakin says a President McCain would prompt them to spend more by offering tax credits. Both campaigns say that while the problem has received little attention, it’s too risky to wait for another major blackout before trying to solve it.