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5 Years After Blackout, Power Grid Still in 'Dire Straits'

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Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record. 

Five years ago this month, a devastating blackout rippled through the Northeastern United States. The blackout plundged more than 50 million people into darkness for nearly three days and left a gaping $10 billion hole in the nation’s economy.

The power outage, however, wasn't an isolated incident.

Three years later, in July 2006, Queens, New York lost power for nine days, which resulted from the deterioration of decades old electrical cables responsible for sending power to the city’s 100,000 residents.

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The US power grid - three interconnected grids made up of 3,500 utilities serving 283 million people - still hangs together by a thread, and its dilapidated state is perhaps one of the greatest threats to homeland security, according to Bruce deGrazia, the president of Global Homeland Security Advisors and a former assistant deputy undersecretary for the Department of Defense, who spoke at an electricity industry conference in Shepherdstown, Va.

The slightest glitch on the transmission superhighway could upset the smooth distribution of electricity over thousands of miles of transmission lines and darken states from Ohio to New York in a matter of seconds, bringing hospitals and airports to a standstill.

“The U.S. electrical grid—the system that carries electricity from producers to consumers—is in dire straits,” the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, said in a report last year. “Electricity generation and consumption have steadily risen, placing an increased burden on a transmission system that was not designed to carry such a large load.”

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President George W. Bush made grand promises in the aftermath of the August 2003 blackout, vowing to modernize the nation’s dilapidated electricity grid, and to work with Congress on a comprehensive energy bill that encouraged investment in the country’s energy infrastructure.

Yet, in the five years that have passed since the worst blackout in US history blanketed the Northeast, nothing substantial has been done to overhaul the power grid and Bush has failed to follow through on his pledge.

Now, severe power shortages and rolling blackouts have become a daily occurrence around the country as the antiquated power grid is continuously stretched beyond its means - mainly a result of electricity deregulation - whereby power is sent hundreds of miles across the grid to consumers by out-of-state power companies instead of being sent directly to consumers by their local utilities, which is what the grid was designed for.

Although tackling energy issues have taken center stage in the presidential campaigns of Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, neither candidate has outlined a comprehensive plan for dealing with the country’s electricity woes. Instead, both campaigns have focused primarily on skyrocketing gasoline prices and ways in which the country can tap additional oil resources.

But the power problems, which are likely to persist, will have a direct impact on the oil markets if grid reliability continues to be ignored.

In an article in the May 7, 2008 issue of Energy Bulletin, Gail E. Tverberg wrote “in the years ahead, we in the United States will have more and more problems with our electric grid. This is likely to result in electrical outages of greater and greater durations.”

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"Quite a few people believe that if there is a decline in oil production, we can make up much of the difference by increasing our use of electricity--more nuclear, wind, solar voltaic, geothermal or even coal. The problem with this model is that it assumes that our electric grid will be working well enough for this to happen. It seems to me that there is substantial doubt that this will be the case.

"If frequent electrical outages become common, these problems are likely to spill over into the oil and natural gas sectors. One reason this may happen is because electricity is used to move oil and natural gas through the pipelines. In addition, gas stations use electricity when pumping gasoline, and homeowners often have natural gas water heaters and furnaces with electric ignition. These too are likely to be disrupted by electrical power outages," Tverberg wrote.

In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the power grid a ‘D’ rating in its report card on the state of domestic infrastructure. The group issues “report cards” every four years.

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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of Truthout.org and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, http://www.pubrecord.org. He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)

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