The great North American power outage that plunged 50 million customers into darkness on Thursday was clearly an infrastructure failure on a massive scale. But blackouts should not surprise, considering the antiquated state of our 200,000 miles of transmission lines, experts say.
"We're a superpower with a Third World grid," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as secretary of energy under President Clinton.
It's a message some energy experts have been trying to spread for years. But the largest power outage in U.S. history may finally spur action.
"Especially in the energy field, for change to occur, you usually have to have a crisis, like Love Canal or the Exxon Valdez. There's usually this kind of dramatic event that triggers a response," said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan professor and environmental policy expert.
Indeed, the power grid will be a squeaky public policy wheel in the coming months, as Congress and a U.S.-Canadian task force begin investigating the failure.
But proposed solutions to the nation's power problems may not be popular. Upgrades to the power grid likely will mean sacrifices all around, experts say. Citizen opponents of power projects may have to calm their "Not In My Back Yard" fervor, companies may have to make expensive upgrades, and politicians may need to take responsibility for change.
The hefty price tag of upgrading the infrastructure is one reason that change has come slow. The North American Electric Reliability Council, the group charged with monitoring the power grid, estimated that improvements would cost $56 billion. The Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit energy research consortium, puts a preliminary estimate at more like $100 billion.
The cost comes largely from the age and intricacy of much of the power grid, experts say.
"The electricity system in this country has operated on the most part on 1950s technology," said Bill Gould, executive director of EPRI's northeast region. "There are probably lines in cities there for nearly 100 years. But the U.S. electrical system is a national treasure. It needs to be spruced up."
Sprucing Up the Grid
Just how to spruce up the grid — and prevent future outages — will be a matter of debate in the coming months.
Building more power lines is one obvious strategy. But bulking up the system of transmission lines is time-consuming, expensive and often unpopular in communities.
The "NIMBY" effect, where citizens rally against power plants or pipelines in their neighborhoods, has commonly stalled energy infrastructure projects in the past few decades.
Another possible solution is boosting existing wires to carry more power with high-temperature superconductors. "We could get a lot of bang for the buck with that. You're using what you've got and making it more robust," said Lynne Kiesling, an economist and energy expert at Northwestern University. Also, digital technology can be used more for faster switching of grid controls.
But who will pay for these improvements? "It's a classic question," Rabe said. "People are talking about electricity as a right or an entitlement, but should that be provided through customers paying more, or through federal and/or state investments, like highways?"
While paying for power upgrades may seem painful, Kiesling says it's better than suffering through another system-wide failure.
"I always like to ask the 'compared to what?' question," she said. "What will the costs be if the upgrades are not made, and who bears them? One way we can think about technology upgrades especially is as insurance, pay for upgrades to avoid the large costs of blackouts."
Getting Most Kilowatts for Your Buck
Still, top-dollar infrastructure options may not be our only choice. Getting creative with customer payment plans can also play a role in keeping down costs and preventing meltdowns.
Under one scheme, customers might pay a flat fee for a certain amount of kilowatts — like a cell phone plan — then more money to exceed that amount. Another option is for customers to pay more per kilowatt during peak energy hours, encouraging them to cut use during the peak to save money and energy.
"From a customer demand side, there are a whole lot of things we can do to release the load and strain on the grid," Kiesling said.
Energy experts say improvement, and soon, is possible, with enough commitment and investment.
"Emerging technology is coming out on a yearly basis and certainly, with a more reasonable investment in the system, it's something achievable on the horizon," Gould said.