How to Fix the Grid: Experts Know How to Shore Up Our Rickety Power Supply. the Question Is Whether They'll Ever Get the Chance to Do It

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Byline: Brad Stone

If the electricity grid is our nation's circulatory system, then America desperately needs a triple bypass. Economic growth and the proliferation of computers and other digital devices have strained power arteries to the max. Meanwhile, utilities and state governments argue futilely over who should fix the problem. Here are a few ideas for emergency surgery.

STOP THE POWER STRUGGLE. Thanks to deregulation of the energy markets over the last 10 years, which allows local utilities to sell electricity anywhere they can find a buyer, electrons produced in Michigan now power microwaves in New York. But the grids are still administered on a state-by-state basis. That's because states don't want to give up control to the Feds--they worry about big towers in their communities and new plants sullying their environment--which stops new transmission lines from being built. State and federal commissions ought to meet jointly to consider upgrades of the grid across state lines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should step in to mandate the construction of reliable new lines, like the proposed Arrowhead-Weston line between Wisconsin and Minnesota. "If the highway system is planned on a federal level, why shouldn't the Feds also direct expansion of the power grid?" asks Elliot Roseman, a principal at energy firm ICF Consulting.

FORK IT OVER. Even as our economic output doubled between 1975 and today, investment in the grid fell from $5 billion to about $2 billion annually, according to industry association Edison Electric Institute. Why doesn't anyone want to build new lines? Blame what economists call the "tragedy of the commons." In a deregulated world, utilities are allowed to use each other's networks--so nobody wants to pay for an expensive improvement program that would also benefit competitors. Congress should create a Marshall Plan for the grid, funding big upgrades of the system with federal dollars. …