This month's massive electrical blackout was a wake-up call heralding the need for improvements, including federal oversight, in the nation's power transmission system, a University of Illinois professor says.
The good news: Transmission is a relatively small part of electricity bills, about 10 percent, said UI Professor George Gross. Capacity – new power-generating facilities – is the big cost and there was a healthy 25 percent margin left in the Northeast region hit by the blackout.
"We need to spend some serious money, but it's not that much," said Gross, a UI electrical and computer engineering professor whose specialty is power industry restructuring, economics and public policy and power transmission.
Gross, who served on a study of the electric grid last year for the U.S. Energy Department, thinks the North American Electric Reliability Council, an industry standards-setting group, needs legislative backing to enforce the standards it sets, which are essentially voluntary now, backed by expanded enforcement powers for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
That includes national authority to site new power transmission lines, especially those running across state lines.
It also includes economic incentives to make investment in transmission lines more attractive, said Gross, who got calls for interviews from media outlets worldwide after the blackout.
Gross said power transmission has been transformed from a localized affair, designed to move electricity from generating plants to nearby customers, to an interconnected system nationwide, along with Canada and Northern Mexico, that moves a lot more power over much longer distances than it did in the past.
The exchange of electricity among power generators has grown by 400 percent in the last decade, Gross said.
But despite the changes in volume and function, in part sparked by electric deregulation, the transmission system hasn't been modified extensively in the last 20 years, he said.
Moreover, attempts to put federal teeth in the enforcement of standards for the system have been rebuffed.
Gross said it makes no sense now to have interstate transmission lines governed by varying state regulations, and often blocked in the wake of political pressure by local opponents to a line siting.
Still, the professor, who also is affiliated with the UI Institute of Government and Public Affairs, doesn't expect the states to shed the siting authority without an argument.
"I think it's going to be a horrible fight," said Gross, who worked in the power industry for 20 years before coming to the UI. "I don't think any state is going to tell the feds 'Just come in and we'll welcome you with open arms.'"
In addition to standardizing the regulatory playing field, Gross said, economic incentives are needed to encourage improvements in the transmission system.
He likes an English model, where part of the savings from being able to move power efficiently, at lower costs and over longer distances because of improvements to the system automatically go to the operators of transmission lines as well as generators and customers.
UI Professor Thomas Overbye, another power systems expert, said he wouldn't blame the blackout on the transmission system until analysis of the causes is complete.
But Overbye said he and colleagues like Gross have contended for some time that the system needs work.
"A lot of us have been saying we need more transmission lines," said Overbye, a UI electrical and computer engineering professor who's developed software to visualize the power grid and track its status. "That's prior to the blackout."
"The grid really wasn't built for these long-range, interstate power transfers," he said. "If we want to do that, we really need to upgrade."
Overbye also agreed that the economic aspects of improving the system need to be examined.
He and Gross said utilities and independent power producers generally view generation as the moneymaker and are loathe to spend on the transmission system if it's avoidable.
"Nobody wants to sock their ratepayers for it, and they want somebody else to pay for it," Gross said.
But Overbye is less certain than Gross about the idea of a national controlling authority.
"I think there definitely needs to be a national discussion on the issue," he said. "We need a national discussion of how to best do it."
You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.