Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–July 3, 2012. This past Friday night a devastating storm swept through the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions, and as of Monday more than 2 million consumers were still without electricity. Today the Center for American Progress released “How to Keep the Lights On,” which outlines the smart investments and clean energy solutions needed for more reliable electricity.
“The best way to reduce outages in the future is to invest in underground lines, smart meters and low-carbon power,” said Richard W. Caperton, CAP’s Director of Clean Energy Investment. Some of the investments that could result in a more resilient and reliable electric system include:
- Smart meters—devices in consumers’ homes that monitor their power use and communicate with the utility—which can make it much easier for line crews to respond to outages without waiting for consumers to call the utility or if telecommunications systems are damaged.
- 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. 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.
- Investments in the clean energy resources that will help reduce the greenhouse gas pollution causing climate change, instead of just investing in the electric grid. As climate change leads to increases in severe weather, we’ll inevitably see more outages similar to the one currently afflicting the Mid-Atlantic.
In addition to putting more of our new lines underground, to make them impervious to falling trees, utilities 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 and they need to make sure that new technologies they install on the grid such as new transformers improve reliability.
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.
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.