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How to Keep the Lights On

More Reliable Electricity Will Require Smart Investments and Clean Energy Solutions

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A pedestrian helps a bicyclist navigate a sidewalk blocked by a fallen tree that also damaged a parked vehicle in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on June 30, 2012. A storm barreled through the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions last Friday, knocking out power for 2 million people. 

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This past Friday night a devastating storm swept through the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions, knocking out power for millions of homes and businesses across 10 states and the District of Columbia. As of Monday more than 2 million consumers were still without electricity.

This disaster highlights how critical electricity is to our everyday lives, and it emphasizes the need for reliable power. Fortunately, there are steps that utilities, policymakers, and consumers can take to reduce the frequency and impact of outages.

We need to do three basic things to make our power more reliable: Reduce damages to the grid, make the grid more resilient in the face of inevitable damages, and speed the repair time for the damages that do happen. We also need to invest in energy resources that reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that’s causing more extreme weather.

What causes power outages?

Power outages have numerous causes, and no magic bullet will eliminate them. Outages can be caused by an overstressed electrical grid trying to deliver large amounts of power on hot days. Sometimes outages are manmade such as when market manipulation by Enron led to rolling blackouts in California. While the current outages are primarily due to downed distribution lines—the lines that carry power through neighborhoods and into houses—other large-scale blackouts were caused by problems with the transmission grid, which carries large amounts of electricity from power plants into communities.

The massive problem currently affecting the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest was caused primarily by trees and limbs falling on power lines. When this happens the local utility sends workers out to look for downed lines, but they generally rely on consumers to tell them about specific problems. After problems are identified, utility linemen have to physically repair every mile of damaged lines, a painstaking process that can take days, weeks, and, in some horrific cases, months.

There aren’t a whole lot of ways to speed up the repair process besides getting more workers and trucks in the field; that’s why there are line crews from across the United States working in the Mid-Atlantic today.

How we can make our power more reliable

While the United States has remarkably reliable power, there’s no way around the fact that other industrialized countries have fewer outages than we do. Americans lose power an average of 214 minutes per year, compared to 21 minutes in Germany and an extraordinary 6 minutes in Japan.

Much of the difference in reliability between the United States and other countries is due to these countries’ recent investments in more dependable electricity infrastructure. Germany, for example, now puts all of their new distribution lines underground, which is more expensive than putting them on poles above ground but also makes them impervious to falling trees.

We should follow Germany’s lead and put more of our new lines underground. But we can also make investments in a more resilient electric system, so that damages to power lines and other parts of the grid don’t cause people to go without power for days on end.

First, smart meters—devices in consumers’ homes that monitor their power use and communicate with the utility—can make it much easier for line crews to respond to outages without waiting for consumers to call the utility. This would be especially useful in times when telecommunications systems are damaged, and people can’t call the utility.

Second, we need more power generation distributed around the grid, rather than all of it being centralized in large power plants. When we rely on centralized power plants, damages to just one line can cause massive outages. If the generation was spread widely across the grid, then damage to that same line will not have the same catastrophic consequences. While some people help by buying a diesel-burning generator (which pollutes the air and has very high fuel costs), many people could make a much smarter investment by putting solar panels on their rooftops.

Finally, when the lights do go out, we need to get them turned back on faster. Smart meters will certainly help get crews dispatched faster, but we also simply need more crews. The utility industry has a remarkable record of cooperation—utilities often lend workers to each other in times of need. But with utility workers retiring extremely quickly, the industry faces a labor shortfall in the near future. We need more qualified people to enter the industry.

Utilities, government, and consumers can all play a role in making these changes happen.

What utilities can do

Utilities need to take their obligation to provide safe, reliable service seriously. To start, they should all follow the guidelines for tree trimming laid out in May by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This would help prevent trees from falling onto wires in storms.

They also have a communications role and need to keep consumers informed with timely and reliable updates on outages. It’s hard to imagine that some of the current anger with PEPCO—the local utility in Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland—isn’t related to PEPCO’s historically dismal reliability performance.

Finally, utilities need to make sure that new technologies they install on the grid such as new transformers improve reliability.

What government can do

Government has a regulatory role in enforcing reliability standards. Certainly, when a utility is negligent in maintaining their grid, the government needs to use every means possible to force compliance with the law. But it can also partner with the industry.

Because of the unique structure of the utility industry, government officials approve most major utility expenses. They should work to encourage investments that improve reliability, including putting wires underground and installing smart meters in homes. They can do this both by approving appropriate investments and by providing financial incentives for new technologies.

Although most of this control over investments is at the state level, the federal government could play a useful role by developing guidelines for educating consumers about smart meters. The federal government should also increase funding for relevant educational programs for future utility workers, including training programs at community colleges.

What consumers can do

Consumers also have a role. Of course, we can make our own investments in the grid by putting solar panels on our rooftops or installing some other type of clean energy resources. More likely, though, most consumers will let the local utility make reliability investments for them. But because most of those costs will ultimately get passed along through electricity bills, consumers have an interest in utilities not making any investments at all—reliability or otherwise. Instead of a knee-jerk opposition to utility investments, consumer advocates need to develop a more holistic understanding of reliability and support investments in technologies such as smart meters that will make their lives better.

Finally, it’s worth noting that we can keep spending money to deal with the impacts of storms, but this will be an endless cycle unless we deal with the storms themselves. As climate change leads to increases in severe weather, we’ll inevitably see more outages similar to the one currently afflicting the Mid-Atlantic. Instead of just investing in the electric grid, we need to also invest in the clean energy resources that will help reduce the greenhouse gas pollution causing climate change.

Richard W. Caperton is the Director of Clean Energy Investment at the Center for American Progress. Adam James is a Special Assistant on the Energy Opportunity team at American Progress.

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