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Fallout from Energy Policy Act of 2005

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Part 1 of a Series

“Energy independence from foreign sources.”  A mantra repeated over and over again by Al Gore, by the Hollywood elite and by candidates running for the 2008 Presidential nomination. But rarely is it ever pointed out how this phrase is but an oxymoron with respect to United States energy policy, which becomes ever more vulnerable, not just as the result of its failing infrastructure, but from misguided public policy decisions.

And never is the topic broached publicly in how much of the U.S. energy infrastructure and lines of transmission have been consumed by a constant stream of foreign direct investors and diversified holding companies. Also unbeknownst to most consumers is that such activity was hailed from Wall Street to Capitol Hill as the answer to resolving U.S. energy woes.

And now those very foreign investors have been granted even greater leeway as now realized by such mandates of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) which essentially eliminated the Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA) of 1935.

And in 2007, barely after the ink dried from EPAct 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 was passed by federal lawmakers and signed into law. EISA conveniently serves to obfuscate critical issues that continue to stress the U.S. electrical power grid, its energy generation and transmission capacity. Yet, EPAct 2005 has continually escaped public scrutiny and a lack of accountability in both houses of the U.S. Congress.

But U.S. energy policy and the generation of power is a complex web of public policy, law, economics, infrastructure and ever-present globalization. So for purposes of this report, and in order to best comprehend current U.S. energy policy, it will be helpful to take stock of the more recent evolution of such and to examine its many and varied elements which have changed again post-2005.

In addition to the repeal of PUHCA 1935, EPAct 2005 amended Section 203 of the Federal Power Act (FPA) which will have an unprecedented and profound impact of its own on how future transactions in the energy industry will be handled by the federal government, impact matters of states’ sovereignty and regulating costs to consumers.

For over 70 years, federal laws have played a vital and critical role in the operation, production, distribution and protection of the U.S. electrical power grid. Federal laws in concert with state laws and regulations have necessarily dictated that the power grid be shielded from market manipulation and criminal behavior.

But as the nearly 100 year old power grid has aged, facing a growing population and higher load demands for power, the industry has simultaneously become more and more deregulated by mandate. And deregulation has led to less and less necessary preventative maintenance, upgrades in technology as well as necessary investment in research and development. And the poorly maintained grid in many of the areas of the country, predominantly the mid-Atlantic and northeast states, has but put even more stress upon its transmission lines.

The basic structure of the North American transmission system is made up of over 140 control centers and approximately 3500 utility providers covering over 200,000 miles. Utility generating plants, transmission and sub-transmission systems, distribution systems and customer loads travel over a two-part power grid; one in the east and one in the west. Texas has its own grid.

Compounding the vast network and intricacy of the grid is the interconnectivity and delivery of power that in many cases is incompatible with widely varying levels of equipment integrity, data systems and personnel training. It is the secondary system which supplies the distribution of electricity to consumers, where most of the power failures occur, and that which require time to repair. And the network of sub-stations feeding electricity to neighborhoods, via feeders which flow to transformers, is where supposed problems arise during local outages, further exacerbated by non-maintained equipment.

But although deregulation of the utility industry began over two decades ago, it was the 1992 Energy Policy Act which changed the way electricity was sold to local consumers for the first time. Energy companies were permitted to install their own plants and sought customers throughout the country, but not necessarily in the same geographic region. Energy brokers then entered into the picture and utilized the open market to buy and sell power. And thus began the potential unreliability of energy delivery.

Purchasing power from plants hundreds of miles away from a respective region put unprecedented burdens upon the transmission system, raising the likelihood of power failures at the local level. Most importantly, the electrical grid, as it was originally envisioned, was never designed to absorb the transmission of high voltage capacity across the continent, and especially in absence of comparable and upgraded systems in place.

Although Enron became the poster child for electrical power market manipulation, which came to light after the rolling blackouts of California in 2000 and 2001, U.S. public policy and lawmakers must be held responsible for even further erosion of federal regulations and mandates now realized in EPAct 2005.

The initial most striking change that EPAct 2005 provides is the repeal of PUHCA 1935, now amended as PUHCA 2005, and now administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). PUHCA 1935 became law after the height of the Great Depression and after the stock market crash of 1929 and was a cornerstone of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal industry legislation.

It called for the prohibition of market manipulation, specifically to prevent then super-sized utility conglomerates, to prevent mega-mergers and to prevent monopolies from overtaking geographic regions. And just as importantly, PUHCA 1935 made it unfeasible for non-energy corporations to purchase a public utility.

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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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