Solve the puzzles of blackout to avert a repeat crisis

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Kansas City Star

President Bush on Friday described the largest electrical blackout in the nation’s history as a “wake-up call” about the outdated power system. The alarm clock, however, has been ringing for a long time.

Scientists and other experts have repeatedly urged that obvious weaknesses in the system be quickly addressed.

Last November a report warned Bush and Congress that the electrical power hodge-podge was “subject to increased stress even without the threat of terrorism.” The report was prepared, though, because the nation did face the threat of terrorism.

Others, too, have predicted major power failures for some time. Yet such warnings apparently fell on deaf ears, and the nation was left vulnerable.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, energy secretary in the Clinton administration, says “we are a major superpower with a Third World electrical grid.”

Some serious questions now present themselves. These questions need to be answered as quickly as possible to avoid similar crises in the future.

How did huge sections of the Northeast and Canada lose electricity, affecting at least 50 million people? And why did systems designed to isolate power outages before they spread fail to do that?

Although there are no definitive answers so far, terrorism does not appear to have been responsible. Frightened people, especially in New York, were relieved that authorities quickly ruled out that possibility.

Did Thursday’s event reveal vulnerabilities that terrorists could exploit? Is the nation, highly dependent on a reliable supply of electric power, prepared to respond to terrorist attacks against
basic infrastructure?

Why were the many warnings about the nation’s power system ignored for so long? Cost concerns and environmental worries were part of the story but they should not have been viewed as insurmountable barriers to modernization.

Certainly, government leaders should not have put the experts’ recommendations on the shelf to simply gather dust. That’s particularly true in Washington, where lawmakers and administration officials claim to have been working tirelessly to strengthen our nation’s vulnerable points.

Did deregulation of electric utilities contribute to the problem? The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which advocates more utility regulation, notes that most of the states affected by the outage have deregulated electric utilities in recent years. A spokesman says “deregulated systems are more susceptible to dangerous supply shortages” than utilities subject to tight state

Are regulators using their powers wisely? Some experts say utilities would invest in new network transmission lines if regulators would guarantee the rate increases to pay for them.

As quickly as possible, officials responsible for public safety and welfare must answer these and other questions – including whether other parts of the country could be hit by similar problems.

Kansas City area power officials initially offered assurances that such an outage is unlikely here. But once the cause of the Northeast blackout is better understood, local officials should make sure their confidence is well-founded.

With few exceptions, people in the affected areas responded well to this week’s challenge – especially in New York, where the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center remain fresh in memory.

Far more, however, should have been done long ago to head off this week’s debacle. Utilities and government officials must now do their best to make up for lost time.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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