Friday, August 15, 2003

The Northeast Swelters; Iraq Swelters.  

Is anyone noticing the irony, unpleasant though it is, of blackouts in the Northeast of the U.S. (and Canada), and blackouts, on a daily basis, in Iraq?

In this country, the "regulators" of energy apparently aren't willing to confront the issue of antiquated transmission capacity, because it would mean an increase in rates. As a direct result of de-regulation, "old utilities" sold off their plants but retained control of transmission lines. These utilities do not have the incentive to invest in new transmission capacity, because transmission charges stay high if capacity is low. New energy companies who bought up power plants don't want the excess capacity that would come with new transmission lines; this would affect profits.

Who get's screwed? You the consumer, not to mention drastically inconvenienced. From the New York Times today:

The problem of preventing such power failures has been that, for the most part, no one has an incentive to invest billions of dollars in new wires, new towers and new transformers. The old utilities have sold off their power plants but still hold a highly regulated monopoly on the network of lines, and they would only invest in new transmission if state regulators would guarantee them rate increases to pay for it.

That is the last thing the regulators, who deregulated much of the industry in hopes of lowering rates, would be willing to do. The entrepreneurial power companies that have bought up power plants have decided against building new transmission lines that would compete with existing ones, possibly driving down transmission charges, and would, at most times, be nothing more than "excess capacity."

Does this blackout scenario remind you of anything? Any country maybe? Any country in the Middle East perhaps? Thomas Friedman's column on August 13 underscored our apparent unwillingness and inability to deal with the lack of electricity in Iraq. This article could have been a prep for this country today. Our electricity problems have a familiar ring to those in Iraq, although the causes are different, but the underlying theme is the same: a country's unwillingness to confront the issue of a substandard infrastructure to deliver the electricity, because it might impede on profits. From Friedman:

Second, America's real enemies in Iraq are exacerbating the situation by cutting electricity lines, which the U.S. does not have enough troops to protect, so many Iraqis today have less electricity (read: air-conditioning) than they had a month ago. The electricity cuts are disrupting oil production and refining, which leads to gasoline lines, soaring prices, more unemployment and more looting.

If we made electricity our priority in Iraq, we could win peace faster than more guns and more troops. Those fighting us in Iraq know this, and they are doing what they can to slow us down, to sabatoge transmission lines.

We simply don't have the numbers there, to both fight terrorism and rebuild and protect Iraq's electric infrastructure. We refuse to make this a project with the UN, that of rebuilding Iraq.

Here at home, the regulators don't want to deal with the issue of highter rates for an improved delivery system for electricity. The government has done nothing to mandate that our electric needs be met. Maybe the people will, now that it has directly affected them...maybe.

We as a people, as a nation, have a habit of burying our heads in the sand when it comes to difficult issues. The issue of antiquated transmission lines is buried along with our heads. The issue of our lack of preparadeness in Iraq to make the peace, and restore electricity, buried in the sand along with our heads. The issue of profits before the needs of the people, millions and millions going to Halliburton and Bechtel to "rebuild" Iraq, while the people there suffer in 120 degree heat, with no electricity, this issue, buried in the hot desert sand along with our heads.

The issue of incentive to keep transmission lines antiquated, to keep up the cost of transmission, means more profits at the expense of the needs of the people.

Take heart, residents of New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, Pennsylvania, Detroit, Toronto: you are not alone. You have your brothers and sisters in Iraq, including the troops there, to swelter along with you.