See the light

There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on following last week’s Northeast blackout and little agreement on what should be done to prevent such events in the future. But some conclusions seem fairly obvious.

One is that electricity provision is far more than a local or regional service and must be treated as such. When overloads in Ohio can trigger blackouts in New York, Toronto and Detroit, we’re dealing with a national system, one that both transcends and includes numerous state and local governments and power providers. In such an environment, only firm government regulation can provide the big-picture planning and incentives that are obviously needed to maintain and upgrade the system.

Second, it’s foolish to be shipping power over such long distances. It consumes power to transmit power, and after a few hundred miles it’s no longer efficient. Besides, these days nobody wants big, ugly transmission lines placed in their communities.

Which brings us to the third obvious conclusion: The best way to make the existing system work better is to use less power and to generate more power locally.

Manufacturers of everything from computers to refrigerators have had great success in increasing their efficiency. Today’s computers, for example, use only half as much power as those made just three years ago. And consumers can be far more diligent in their usage, as Californians discovered two years ago, during our worst blackouts, when we collectively cut back energy use by anywhere from 10-20 percent.

And we can generate far more power onsite, by using the latest solar and wind technology on as many new buildings as possible.

America’s electricity system no doubt needs improvement, but if the only approach is more of the same short-sighted, market-driven foolishness—that is, building big power plants and shipping the electricity all around the country—we’re just going to keep on having blackouts. It’s time to see the light.