New York — Scientists and engineers with the National Research Council warned the White House and Congress about the vulnerability of the power grid as recently as November, saying nationwide weaknesses needed to be repaired -- and fast.
Little has been done, despite a chorus of experts who've pushed since well before Sept. 11 to fix a grid that's riddled with threadbare links and plagued by chronic shortages.
"The power grid has not gotten much more than important conversations since Sept. 11," said Paul Gilbert, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, which worked on the report for the National Research Council.
The report, "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism," was issued in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, but it noted that the systems were "subject to increased stress even without the threat of terrorism."
The report urged the protection of key elements of the power grid and the creation of an updated system that would limit vulnerabilities to the flow of electricity.
"Technology should be developed for an intelligent, adaptive power grid," that would be able "to rapidly respond with graceful system failure and rapid power recovery," the report recommended. The report's authors shared their findings and recommendations with the White House and congressional committees last November, Gilbert said.
Blackout no surprise
A day after the largest blackout in U.S. history darkened lives across the most populous swath of North America, power experts said the system's sorry shape appeared to have been a surprise only to the unwitting consumers who relied on it.
"We're trying to build a 21st century electric marketplace on top of a 20th century electric grid," said Ellen Vancko, a spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Council. "No significant additions have been made to the grid in 20 years of bulk electric transmission, yet we've had significant increases in the amount of generation."
Many predicted that the tall, wire-bearing towers and substations that ferry power into the crowded cities of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada would fail sooner or later, after decades of neglect.
"It's something that's been coming I think for the past 35 years," said Mel Olken, editor-in-chief of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine, which is published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
"We just kept stretching our systems further and further" as consumers and businesses upgraded homes and offices to cope with power-craving air conditioners and computers.
By contrast, the region's transmission grid languishes in the era of black-and-white TV, outpaced by the demands of modernized generating plants shoving power into it at one end, or the new appliances sucking electricity out the other end.
New York Assemblyman Paul Tonko, an engineer and chairman of his chamber's Energy Committee, said there hasn't been major spending to improve transmission lines by the state since the 1970s and no major work by utilities since the 1960s.
President Bush said Friday the power outages across the Northeast and Midwest were a "wake-up call" to the antiquated state of the nation's electrical grid.
"The grid needs to be modernized, the delivery systems need to be modernized," Bush said. "We've got an antiquated system."
Gilbert, who worked on the National Research Council report, said current budget scheduling, however, made it unlikely that any funding could be allocated before the 2005 budget for resolving the grid's weakness.
Experts said long-awaited upgrades have been flummoxed by property holders, environment lobbyists and politicians who require a crisis to push them to act.
The hurdles run from Wall Street's reluctance to invest in transmission capacity due to a lack of clear ground rules to the headaches involved in building new high-wire power lines across the most crowded parts of the region.
"Nobody wants it in their backyard," said David K. Owens, executive vice president for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C., a lobby group for private power companies. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned last summer, "The real energy crisis may be happening on the nation's aging power grid. Getting electricity from here to there over high-power transmission lines is becoming more unpredictable and difficult."
The school's Technology Review magazine quoted David Cook, general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Council, who warned the Department of Energy: "The question is not whether, but when, the next major failure of the grid will occur."