Governors Mull Blackout Solutions
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
Responding to the recent blackouts in Midwestern and Northeastern states, governors gathered here for the National Governors Association's (NGA) annual summer meeting agreed the nation's electricity grid needs an upgrade.
But citing regional differences in power needs and costs, the governors were not sure they could agree on a national strategy to improve the grid and on who should pay for it.
"There's gonna be winners. There's gonna be losers," said Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D), NGA chairman. "The NGA just is not equipped to adopt a unified strategy on issues where states have differing views."
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), incoming NGA chairman, was more hopeful that governors could find common ground with each other.
"I do believe that the governors need to have this issue before them for discussion ... to see what solutions we can agree upon," Kempthorne said.
Kempthorne said governors from Western states faced this issue after the California energy crisis and crafted a plan to upgrade the transmission lines.
"An outcome of the meeting we held two years ago with the Western governors was to seek additional funds from the power administration for transmission, because I do believe that transmission lines are one of the problems," he said.
"It is very appropriate that we take some of those lessons and perspectives that we have discussed in the West and combine them with our colleagues in the East," Kempthorne said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), former secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, told Stateline.org there is little question that the nation must improve its electricity transmission grid because it is being asked to handle an increasing level of activity.
Richardson said the grid's electron traffic has increased 400 percent over the last 10 years due to energy trading by utilities, while the system's capacity has increased just 18 percent over the same period.
"They are making money over the miserable state of our transmission," he said.
The governors' differing perspectives on grid improvements are due in part to the high cost of updating the grid and the fact that some states would benefit from improvements more than others. For example, Patton said grid improvements are a cost Kentucky's economy can't bear.
"Our economy has been created around low cost energy. Aluminum, automobiles, heavy manufacturing we deal in industries that consume a lot of energy. Industries that need cheap electricity have come to Kentucky," Patton told Stateline.org. These industries could be threatened if grid improvements drive-up the cost of electricity, he said.
Another complicating factor in governors' discussions is the fact that responsibility for the electrical grid overlaps between state agencies and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Richardson said resolving this turf dispute is the first step to improving the reliability of the nation's electricity supply.
"We first have to establish rules of the road between federal and state regulators that are fighting too much, that are not working together over opening up new transmission lines, building new ones, and using technology to improve existing ones. There are too many turf fights," he said.
One solution to this problem is for the federal government to assert more authority over the grid system. But some governors expressed concern that that would threaten state sovereignty.
"The concern the governors have about the recent blackout is that it may prompt those in the federal government to think that there needs to be a federal solution to this energy issue as it relates to transmission and a usurpation or preemption of the states rights as it relates to the location of power lines," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).
Despite the differing regional concerns emerging at the NGA meeting, Vilsack said all governors, Republican and Democrat alike, have a vested interest in ensuring that the nation has a steady flow of energy.
"When the lights go out, it affects Republicans and Democrats just the same," he said.