Just days away from the one-year anniversary of the historic Aug. 14, 2003 blackout, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) last week called for the creation of a new federal agency with the authority to develop and enforce reliability standards for the grid. He also released a new report that he says shows that the electricity grid remains exposed to further blackouts.

Schumer presented a 10-page report concluding that although transmission of electricity across the grid has changed drastically, maintenance standards, communication and infrastructure investment have not kept pace, at the expense of reliability and quality of service. Overloaded electricity lines are now common, and the industry has failed to invest in new infrastructure and technology to support the new demands, the report states. At the same time, the grid is not being maintained properly, it said.

According to GF Energy, over the last decade spending on maintenance such as tree trimming has decreased by 30%. In addition, the era of competition has decreased information sharing among the utilities, leaving the grid further vulnerable to a domino effect in the event of a blackout, the lawmaker noted.

Schumer said that these problems could be corrected with strict enforcement of industry standards. However, Schumer’s report finds that under the current system, there is no federal agency with that kind of authority, nor is there an agency that is qualified and equipped to take on such a responsibility.

The report concludes that FERC lacks the technical expertise. The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) “is too closely tied” to the industry to lead this effort and compliance with NERC industry standards remains voluntary and unenforceable.

To fill in this regulatory gap, Schumer called for a new federal office that would have both the authority and the expertise to ensure the viability and reliability of the transmission grid to prevent future blackouts. Schumer said that the office would treat the electricity grid as a public service and function similarly to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in its oversight of the federal highway system.

Under the interstate highway system, transportation and engineering experts at the Department of Transportation (DOT) oversee infrastructure investment and ensure that the highways are safe and well maintained. Under Schumer’s plan, the new office would provide similar management and oversight to the infrastructure that carries electricity. Specifically, the new office would be charged with the following:

Schumer said that while there are other proposals to mandate compliance with industry standards, a new office with the expertise and the authority to ensure the necessary reforms are made by the industry would provide the type of enforcement necessary to prevent a blackout.

Meanwhile, the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance (New York AREA), a New York-based group of business, labor, and civic organizations, on Wednesday called on the New York state legislature and U.S. Congress to make electricity supply and reliability top legislative priorities.

“Last year’s blackout was a wake up call for policymakers to adopt common sense and popular solutions that will not only keep the lights on, but help the city to grow and prosper,” said Jerry Kremer, chairman to the advisory board of New York AREA.

“The problems that caused last year’s blackout must be addressed by adopting federal electricity reliability standards. New York lost $1 billion because of problems that originated out of state,” he said. “This simply cannot happen again, especially when groups like the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force, the North American Electric Reliability Council, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have made it clear that reliability legislation is needed.”

At the state level, “we also have to make sure that New York does not go down the path that California did a few years ago, with periodic supply disruptions and economic turmoil, because of an inadequate supply of locally generated electricity,” said Kremer.

“We need a new power plant siting approval law, commonly referred to as Article X. Without Article X new plants do not get built — period. Since Article X expired 20 months ago, in December 2002, no new proposals have been put forward for new plants. Yet, in January, Mayor Bloomberg’s Energy Task Force has warned that the city needs to add 2,600 MW of new electricity resources by 2008. That’s more electricity than is produced by the Hoover Dam.” As a New York State Assemblyman, Kremer helped to author the Article X statute.

“We need federal reliability standards and Article X legislation,” Kremer said. “The New York legislature and U.S. Congress should commit to acting on these respective measures within the next 30 days, by Sept. 10, 2004, before this summer is over.”

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