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Editorial: Political gridlock at root of problems with power grid

August 17, 2003

Even though it's unlikely that the kind of electricity crisis that turned the lights out Thursday in much of the northeastern United States could happen here, Kentuckians still need to be concerned about the condition of the nation's power grid.

Executives of the Danville-based Inter-County Energy Cooperative pointed out in an interview Friday that because power used in Kentucky is generated within the state, it's unlikely that residents could face the kind of "cascading" failure in the grid that knocked out power from New York City to Detroit.

But as Americans learned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the economic and political impact of such disasters, both natural and man-made, in the nation's heavily populated areas do "cascade" across the country, and that's likely to be the case this time as well.

Judging from the political rhetoric both from President Bush, who said it was his opinion that the power grid needs to be "modernized," and from leading Democrats, who did their best to imply that Bush and the Republicans were to blame from the outage, Thursday's blackout is likely to become the issue du jour this fall in the nation's capital. Unfortunately, the rhetoric so far is shedding more heat than light on the issue.

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Like a lot of the country's major problems, the power grid problem is more political than technological.

One solution, as Inter-County officials pointed out, would be to build power plants closer to where the power is used. But that means putting the plants in places like California and the Northeast where the power of the environmental lobby is particularly strong.

Since it's politically impossible to build the plants in those heavily populated states where the additional generating capacity is actually needed, they are built in places like Kentucky where it isn't needed but there is less political opposition. Witness the rash of "merchant" power plants that have been approved for construction in Kentucky in recent years.

Building plants in Kentucky and other less-populated states solves the power problem for the Northeast but doesn't solve the transmission problem. In fact, it makes it worse, and even more likely that such disasters as Thursday's blackout will occur.

Kentuckians should be concerned that they don't end up paying the environmental and economic costs of solving the power problems of the Northeast. First, the electricity customers in the Northeast should pay the cost of upgrading any transmission lines that bring them power - even if those lines happen to be in Kentucky. Second, they should accept the fact that nobody really wants a power plant nearby but somebody has to have one nearby, and the plants ought to be nearest those who actually use the power generated by them.

We don't suspect that Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who was already pointing the finger at Republicans Thursday night, is going to be telling her constituents anytime soon that they are going to have pay higher rates and live with more pollution if they want a more reliable power system. What's more likely is that she'll try to shift more of the the cost and pollution to places like Kentucky.

Stay tuned.

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