Which Candidate will Champion the Transmission System?

One of the more pressing energy concerns in the United States has gotten scant attention this election year. Concern over the health of the North American electric transmission system—such a hot-button topic just a year ago in the wake of the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout—has faded into the periphery of national consciousness.

The small amount of debate over energy that President Bush and John Kerry have entered into has centered mainly on environmental issues and how to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. To understand where the candidates stand on the issue of electric power delivery, one has to do some digging, and even then, few hard-and-fast answers are available.

The part of Kerry’s energy plan that pertains to the transmission system is particularly thin. Kerry advocates the use of “innovative technologies and cutting edge software capabilities to revolutionize our antiquated system and develop a ‘Smart Grid,'” which is a fine idea but nothing new. Kerry will find little debate over whether “innovative technologies” can strengthen the grid. Technologies like FACTS, HVDC, wide-area measurement and monitoring systems, and higher-capacity transmission conductor are commercially available and, in some cases, already being employed. Cost is the real sticking point. Generally speaking, utility companies and other transmission owners have been slow to invest in these “innovative technologies.”

Kerry also advocates mandatory and enforceable reliability standards for the power industry—another admirable goal, but, again, far from novel. The issue, here, isn’t whether technology is necessary or good, or whether enforceable reliability standards are warranted. Both candidates are in lockstep agreement on those points. The larger issue is the investment climate. The current transmission system investment climate is poor, and it has been poor for more than two decades. Chief among the reasons for under-investment are the difficulty of siting new lines, relatively low return on transmission system investments, questions about who should pay for needed investments and an uncertain regulatory environment.

Instead of paying lip service to such easy and accepted issues as whether or not technology is good and whether or not we need mandatory reliability standards, these two candidates need to let us know how they intend to foster a more favorable environment for investing in transmission.

While Kerry’s energy plan lacks specifics, Bush has outlined strategies to address some of the major investment hurdles. Bush advocates expanding investment in transmission and generation facilities by repealing the Public Utility Holding Company Act. (John Kerry has voted for PUHCA repeal in the past, but plans for PUHCA are absent from his published energy plan.) Bush also advocates increased rates of return on new transmission investments. He would lessen the difficulty of siting important transmission lines by providing for last-resort Federal siting authority for high-priority transmission lines and expedite transmission permitting activities on Federal land.

The 2004 election won’t be won or lost on transmission issues, but they are important issues nonetheless—particularly for readers of this magazine. Of the two major-party candidates, there is little question that Bush has the more clearly defined plan for transmission’s future. You’re unlikely to hear much discussion of energy between now and Nov. 2, but readers are urged to seek out what information they can about each candidate’s stance on important energy issues and make an informed decision on Election Day.

Steven Brown, Editor in Chief

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