Friday, August 22, 2003

Keeping the lights on

The power blackout across the northeast United States and parts of Canada last week juiced up controversy over a plan by the Vermont Electric Power Co. to upgrade transmission lines in the western part of the state.
The proposal forces Vermonters to focus on many of the issues that have taken center stage since power failures plunged millions of Americans into darkness and led to criticism that the country has a "Third World electrical grid."
The Vermont Public Service Board begins official review early next month of Velco's application to improve transmission lines between Rutland and Burlington, a $128 million project the company says is critical to meet the future energy needs of Chittenden County and to enhance service reliability throughout the state.
The Velco proposal, which involves factors ranging from land-use to the type of transmission lines, was already guaranteed to spark considerable debate. The new, post-blackout context makes those issues even more central to concern over the country's electrical network.
An antiquated transmission system has been largely blamed for last week's widespread electrical disruption. Although mostly escaping the blackout, Vermont reflects the same problem on a state level. Velco executives say a transmission system built 30 years ago is unable to keep up with Vermont's energy demands.
And that's the pattern across the country.
Over the last few years, responsibility for power generation and power transmission has become hopelessly muddled between the federal and state governments. For the most part, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission oversees the production side of the electrical system, while states retain the sole authority to license and site transmission lines.
Due largely to difficulty in gaining state approval of new transmission lines, the country has an abundance of electrical generating capacity but can't deliver all that power to homes and businesses. The result is a disjointed system prone to breakdowns such as occurred last week.
Even before the blackout, some members of Congress were seeking greater federal control over utility issues. The House-passed energy bill, for example, contains a provision allowing utility companies to appeal state rejection of new transmission line requests to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That measure worries Vermonters who jealously protect their right to decide matters that can have such a significant impact on the state's environment and economy.
In response, advocates of a strong federal role say that allowing individual states to veto installation of new transmission facilities jeopardizes the entire national energy system.
The issue cries for creative leadership on the state and federal levels. Unfortunately, that kind of leadership has been sorely lacking in congressional debate over a national energy policy. Aside from politics, regional differences in utility pricing and priorities make development of a coherent national electrical system even more problematic.
The Vermont Public Service Board is expected to hold lengthy hearings on the Velco proposal. But the issue suddenly became much more important because of last week's blackout. With so much at stake, Vermonters need to become informed and realize there is more to electricity than flipping a switch.