Two weeks ago, an error by a maintenance worker in Arizona initiated a cascade of events that cut off electricity from Arizona to San Diego to Mexico.  Traffic was snarled, schools were closed, and business activity came to a halt as more than 3.5 million people literally sweated it out in 100-degree-plus heat until power was restored.  Fortunately, only 12 hours had elapsed, and although millions were inconvenienced and total costs will surely run into the tens of millions, the region dodged major economic losses, casualties, and loss of human life.  State and federal bodies have already announced plans to conduct investigations of the incident.  But we don’t need to wait for these reports to refresh some important lessons about the state of our nation’s electric grid and what to do about it:

First, our electric grid is vulnerable and outdated – it has simply not kept up with our ever growing demand for electricity.  Our grid uses technology more than half a century old, and critical facilities in many parts of the country are of a similar vintage.  It must be made smarter and stronger to meet our current and future needs.

Second, we depend more on electricity today than ever, a dependency that will continue to grow in the future.  Electricity is safe, clean, efficient, and flexible enough to perform innumerable tasks.  American homes, offices, health care facilities, and factories are using more electrical devices every day because they dramatically increase productivity and quality of life.  Electricity will power a growing share of our transportation miles over the next several decades.  It is reckless and completely unnecessary to allow reliable and affordable electricity – the lifeblood of our economy – to be put at risk by a rickety and antiquated grid.

Third, our grid, for all of its faults, is now a single interconnected “machine” over a few very large regions of the country.  Equipment failures in Arizona can shut the lights out in California, just as overloaded lines in Ohio blacked out 55 million people in eight states from Michigan to Boston – and the Canadian province of Ontario – in 2003.  Since everyone benefits from a uniformly robust electric system, everyone should share the modest cost of strengthening its weak links.   Transmission accounts for less than 10 percent of the average electric bill, so it makes sense to invest now to prevent the much larger costs of widespread system outages – an estimated $10 billion for the 2003 blackout alone.

Renewable resources like solar and wind are even more dependent on transmission lines.  Unlike fossil fuels, wind and sunlight can’t be moved in pipelines or rail cars.  Power lines are needed to move renewable electricity from remote areas where it is most economically produced – like the Great Plains and Desert Southwest – to where it is consumed, cities and suburbs around the country.  America is home to some of the greatest renewable energy resources in the world – enough to meet all of our energy needs many times over.  A robust and modern electric grid is the key to unlocking their potential.

Making our grid stronger does not mean we can’t make it smarter and more efficient; in fact, we need to do both.  If California’s recent blackout helps us work together toward those goals, we’ll be that much closer to addressing our economic and environmental challenges.

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