Stop Bickering and Fix the Power Grid

The blackout of 2003 did more than cut off the lights for 50 million people. People couldn't use their computers to get to the Internet. They couldn't reach their children and friends on cell phones. The August power outage hit whole systems of information, communication, and safety. That's because we have created an information society that depends on highly complex, networked, and interconnected technological systems -- and we are not managing them at all adequately. Indeed, they are increasingly run not on the basis of science or engineering but on ideological preferences, not for the overall public good but for regional or parochial interests.

The blackout is merely the latest and most dramatic example of this trend. For years, engineers, regulatory agencies, utilities, businesses, and consumer groups warned that the transmission grid needed upgrading. The U.S. was shifting from a regional system of regulated monopolies to a more deregulated national market for electricity, and the grid required uniform, national rules of the road and more capital investment. Simple problem to address, right? Yet the solution has been defined in political terms, as being for or against states' rights, or pro- or anti-deregulation. Fixing the grid has never been seen simply in terms of getting it to work better.

Texas and states in the Southeast and the Northwest continue to keep their electricity regulated and don't want Washington telling them what to do. Northern and Midwestern states that did deregulate want the federal government to set uniform rules for the grid so they can buy and sell their electricity in a well-functioning national market. Both sides have fought the issue to a standstill in Congress. And neither is willing to pay for new investments in a grid they commonly use but don't profit from -- a classic case of the so-called tragedy of the commons. So as electricity usage rose sharply, the grid didn't keep up. Inevitably, it broke down. Was the blackout a failure of technology? Hardly. Blame the clash of ideologies.

SHORT-TERM THINKING Ideology has also paralyzed the White House's attempt to pass a broad energy policy for the nation. With oil at more than $30 a barrel still taxing consumer spending power, the economic cost of gridlock is high. Conservatives want measures to encourage drilling for oil and gas to increase supplies. Liberals focus mostly on conservation and cutting down on the demand. Clearly, the country needs both in a balanced energy package. Yet it can't get there because of partisan bickering.

Blame politics as well for the failure of the cell-phone system when the lights went out. Well before batteries ran down in Detroit, New York, and other cities, people could not use their cells. That had nothing to do with wireless phone technology. In the old days of AT&T (T ), the regulated monopoly was required to build redundancy into the system, so that in an emergency there would be surplus capacity to get calls through. AT&T passed the extra cost along to customers. In the deregulated world of cells phones, no redundancy is required, and there's no incentive to provide any. Telecom companies plan on no more than 20% to 30% of their customers using their phones at one time. But as September 11 clearly showed, this is nonsense in an era of security threats.

Deregulated telecom companies are not about to invest in redundant capacity for national emergencies. They respond to the market's short-term incentives to maximize profit, as they should. Nor do they want to charge customers extra for the equipment necessary for coping in a crisis. Washington, for its part, doesn't want to raise taxes to pay for surplus cell-phone capacity and won't order the telecommunications companies to invest and pass the charge on to customers (as it does do, for example, when it orders the industry to subsidize rural telephone users). The failure of cell phones during the blackout had nothing to do with technology itself, but only with how we manage it. The phone companies are obeying the clear market forces of deregulation. Washington is following its no-tax political pressures. And the simple need to build extra cell-phone capacity to deal with terrorist attacks or emergencies is not being addressed. Today, technological redundancy translates into reliability and security. The question of who will pay for it is a political issue no one dares address. So we remain vulnerable to terrorism and accidents alike.

PRAGMATISM, PLEASE Certainly, there are serious scientific issues surrounding the rise of more complicated technological systems that need to be discussed. Should the U.S. even try to operate a single, centralized electricity grid? One giant, deregulated market for electricity across the country would tend to provide the most efficient and lowest-cost electricity to consumers and businesses. But it may also reduce reliability, since everyone would be dependent on one system all the time, and systems do crash. Widespread blackouts have huge economic costs that must be measured against the savings of a unified, deregulated market. A more regional, decentralized electricity system, linked by a national grid but producing most power locally, may actually be more rational, especially in an age of insecurity.

In the current atmosphere, however, we may never know. By replacing pragmatism with ideology and practicality with politics, we are undermining the foundation of our information society. Our ability to deal objectively with inevitable problems that arise from technology is slowly being eroded. The very basis of America's future growth rests on the idea of a wired, networked knowledge economy. But the blackout of 2003 reminds us of the fragility of that idea and how perilously close we are to the terror of finding ourselves cut off and defenseless in the dark. We must find ways to set aside partisan politics and ideological zealotry to fix what needs fixing. The nation's prosperity and security depend on it.

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