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Power Politics: Background

Last week's sweeping power outages heated up the debate over the country's energy policies. Kwame Holman reports.

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    Just hours after power was fully restored this weekend in the East and Midwest, the political fallout from the blackout began, reviving old questions about what should be done next. We begin with a report from Kwame Holman.


    High-voltage transmission lines and towers stretch from one end of America to the other. They all may look the same, but they're not part of a tightly- woven network. The generation and transmission of electricity in this country is managed by dozens of independently-owned, loosely associated utility companies. And that's one of the reasons tracing the cause and instantaneous spread of last week's massive power outage has been so difficult. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.


    It's going to take some time. We have got hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission line, and all the various stations where this generation takes place to investigate.


    Some immediately blamed the physical condition of the power grid, which Secretary Abraham estimated could cost 56 billion dollars to upgrade. In fact, provisions to rebuild the grid are included in versions of a major energy bill moving through Congress this year. This was Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, back in July.


    There is no more important legislation than the energy legislation. It is filled with provisions which will turn our electric system into a real system instead of a hodgepodge that accomplishes little or nothing other than each region of the country provides more and more and the country, as a whole, is shortchanged.


    But the electricity portion of the energy bill also has proven the most contentious. At issue are changes proposed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known as the FERC. The commission wants authority to build high-voltage transmission towers on private land. It also has called for adoption of a standard market design to regulate wholesale power prices. And the FERC would urge utility companies to join regional transmission organizations to ensure uniformity in the management of the nation's power grid.

    In Congress, those aren't partisan issues as much as they are regional ones, opposed by members from the Southeast and Northwest, where electric power is relatively cheap. Washington State Democrat Maria Cantwell:


    For my colleagues who do not understand what that means, it means a national grid where your region's cheap, affordable electricity at cost-based rates might be displaced by the highest bidder of an energy company that wants to sell its more expensive energy in your state. We need to address the fact that we don't want FERC to proceed on an order mandating regional transmission organizations and standard market design.


    But last month, Mississippi republican Trent Lott could foresee problems ahead if congress failed to reach agreement.


    I am not particularly happy with so-called SMD and the regional transmission organizations, RTO's; I think it is a problem for my region of the country but I am not about to be a part of trying to drag it out or delay this bill. It may be in my interest locally to do that or to work to get it changed, but for our country, we are going to stand here and accuse each other of not handling it right, while Rome and Washington, D.C., burns. This is ridiculous.


    Washington D.C. didn't burn, but Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, and hundreds of other cities all went dark last week. And that has put new pressures on members of congress to act. There seems to be broad support for a bill that at least would require utility companies to adopt and meet some reliability standards, in the maintenance and operation of the nation's power grid.

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