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US Energy Policy: Electrical Grid in Critical Condition

nmj_powergrid_02.jpgMarch 25, 2009
Fallout from The Energy Policy Act of 2005 Revisited
Part I: Electrical Grid in Critical Condition
by Diane M. Grassi
NewMediaJournal.us
Acclamations for energy independence from foreign sources have been oft-repeated rallying cries resounding throughout the halls of Capitol Hill, as well as echoed by its environmental lobbyists, most predominantly over the past 4 years. But rarely is it ever pointed out how energy independence from foreign sources is an incongruous notion with respect to United States energy policy. Moreover, it becomes ever more vulnerable yearly; not just as the result of its failing infrastructure, but from misguided public policy decisions.
 

And never is the topic broached publicly in how much of the US energy infrastructure and lines of transmission have been consumed by a constant stream of foreign direct investors and diversified holding companies. Also unbeknownst to most consumers is that such activity was hailed from Wall Street to Capitol Hill as the answer to resolving US energy woes.

And now those very foreign investors have been granted even greater leeway as now realized by such mandates of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct) which essentially eliminated the Public Utilities Holding Company Act (PUHCA) of 1935.

And in 2007, barely after the ink dried from EPAct 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 was passed by federal lawmakers and signed into law. EISA conveniently serves to obfuscate critical issues that continue to stress the US electrical power grid, its energy generation and transmission capacity. Yet, EPAct 2005 has continually escaped public scrutiny and a lack of accountability in both houses of the US Congress.

But US energy policy and the generation of power is a complex web of public policy, law, economics, infrastructure and ever-present globalization. So for purposes of this report, and in order to best comprehend current US energy policy, it will be helpful to take stock of the more recent evolution of such and to examine its many and varied elements which have changed again post-2005.

In addition to the repeal of PUHCA 1935, EPAct 2005 amended Section 203 of the Federal Power Act (FPA) which will have an unprecedented and profound impact of its own on how future transactions in the energy industry will be handled by the federal government, impact matters of states' sovereignty and regulating costs to consumers.

For over 70 years, federal laws have played a vital and critical role in the operation, production, distribution and protection of the US electrical power grid. Federal laws in concert with state laws and regulations have necessarily dictated that the power grid be shielded from market manipulation and criminal behavior.

But as the nearly 100 year old power grid has aged, facing a growing population and higher load demands for power, the industry has simultaneously become more and more deregulated by mandate. And deregulation has led to less and less necessary preventative maintenance, upgrades in technology as well as necessary investment in research and development. And the poorly maintained grid in many of the areas of the country, predominantly the mid-Atlantic and northeast states, has but put even more stress upon its transmission lines.

The basic structure of the North American transmission system is made up of over 140 control centers and approximately 3500 utility providers covering over 200,000 miles. Utility generating plants, transmission and sub-transmission systems, distribution systems and customer loads travel over a two-part power grid; one in the east and one in the west. Texas has its own grid.

Compounding the vast network and intricacy of the grid is the interconnectivity and delivery of power that in many cases is incompatible with widely varying levels of equipment integrity, data systems and personnel training. It is the secondary system which supplies the distribution of electricity to consumers, where most of the power failures occur, and that which require time to repair. And the network of sub-stations feeding electricity to neighborhoods, via feeders which flow to transformers, is where supposed problems arise during local outages, further exacerbated by non-maintained equipment.

But although deregulation of the utility industry began over two decades ago, it was the 1992 Energy Policy Act which changed the way electricity was sold to local consumers for the first time. Energy companies were permitted to install their own plants and sought customers throughout the country, but not necessarily in the same geographic region. Energy brokers then entered into the picture and utilized the open market to buy and sell power. And thus began the potential unreliability of energy delivery.

Purchasing power from plants hundreds of miles away from a respective region put unprecedented burdens upon the transmission system, raising the likelihood of power failures at the local level. Most importantly, the electrical grid, as it was originally envisioned, was never designed to absorb the transmission of high voltage capacity across the continent, and especially in absence of comparable and upgraded systems in place.

Although Enron became the poster child for electrical power market manipulation, which came to light after the rolling blackouts of California in 2000 and 2001, US public policy and lawmakers must be held responsible for even further erosion of federal regulations and mandates now realized in EPAct 2005.

The initial most striking change that EPAct 2005 provides is the repeal of PUHCA 1935, now amended as PUHCA 2005, and now administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). PUHCA 1935 became law after the height of the Great Depression and after the stock market crash of 1929 and was a cornerstone of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal industry legislation.

It called for the prohibition of market manipulation, specifically to prevent then super-sized utility conglomerates, to prevent mega-mergers and to prevent monopolies from overtaking geographic regions. And just as importantly, PUHCA 1935 made it unfeasible for non-energy corporations to purchase a public utility.

Such abuses led to severe problems in the electric and gas industry in the 1920's and in the 1930's when three utility holding companies owned one-half of the electric utilities in the entire US Thus, the emergence and formation of the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) in 1934, which preceded PUHCA1935, and together became essential in safe-guarding the public trust and in protecting consumers and investors alike, as PUHCA 1935 delegated multi-state utility ownership regulation to the SEC.

Fast-forward to February 8, 2006, six months to the day of the enactment of EPAct 2005, when the official repeal of PUHCA 1935 was realized. As a direct result, the SEC vacated its regulatory authority over multi-state utility ownership by holding companies and only retains the ability to protect investors, not utility consumers or to prevent mega-mergers from consolidating. And now the FERC will assume cursory merger authority over generating plants and holding companies.

The repeal of PUHCA 1935 will not only allow multi-state transactions but also mergers of distribution facilities, utilities merging with non-utility corporations, and including foreign ownership over domestic utilities. Furthermore, oil companies may now own electricity and natural gas utilities, paving the way, yet again, for the formation of cartels. In addition, construction and infrastructure companies, especially those from abroad, are eager to partake in being afforded carte blanche in the acquisition of US public utility operations.

In the post-PUHCA 1935 era, no individual state or federal agency will have the jurisdictional teeth to effectively regulate the finances of US public utility assets totaling more than one trillion US dollars. Nor will there be required oversight of such holding or parent companies such as investment banks from speculating and investing in far riskier businesses, with utility rate-payer revenues. We have already seen evidence of such with the current sub-prime mortgage loan crisis.

At cost? The reliability standards of US public utilities, which could have grave ramifications on US national security, the US economy and the well-being and safety of the American people; all with the blessings of the US Department of Energy, the US Congress and the global stock market.
Diane M. Grassi is a freelance columnist, who writes weekly commentary and op-ed pieces providing honest and often politically incorrect assessments of the US government's public policy, its laws and its courts' opinions.
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Fallout from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was originally published on the New Media Journal and is updated and republished on Right Side News with Copyright Permissions from NMJ.  

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Diane M. Grassi is an independent investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the public interests of average Americans.

Ms. Grassi sticks to the facts on myriad issues, often given short shrift by the mainstream press and broadcast media. With a passion for holding U.S. lawmakers and government officials accountable for their legislative and policy decisions, Ms. Grassi has an undying resolve to awaken others to these facts in order to promote an educated electorate.

Diane M. Grassi may contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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