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Five years after the worst blackout in North American history, in which one Ohio utility’s mistakes darkened homes and businesses for 50 million people in eight states and Canada, the federal government acknowledges that much remains to be done to address the nation’s aging electric grid. The 200,000 miles of power lines that crisscross the country were not designed to bear the burden they now carry. In response to the 2003 blackout, Congress for the first time made the more than 500 owners and operators of the world’s largest power grid subject to mandatory reliability standards. But the program, run by the industry’s own self-regulatory organization, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), is no cure-all. In February 2008, a million people lost power for an afternoon due to the errors of a Florida Power & Light engineer. NERC issued advisories to help prevent such problems in the future, but levied no penalties. More nettlesome problems, utilities argue, are the need to build additional long-distance, high-voltage power lines, and to bring up-to-date digital technology to the grid. Investment in electric transmission has roughly doubled in the last five years, thanks in part to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission incentives, but the agency says that much more investment is needed. Some projects are slowed because neighbors and environmentalists object to power lines, but that problem may not be as great a barrier to new transmission lines as the simple question of who should pay for them — when the customers who benefit the most are often hundreds of miles from the fields, farmland, and mountains that need to be cleared to make way for towering steel pylons.

The drive for cleaner energy is making the need to fix the nation’s transmission grid problems even more urgent. Areas with high wind, intense sunlight, and great geothermal potential — the sources of alternative energy — are remote, so even more high-voltage power lines will be needed. In most states, electric utilities make more money by selling more power, giving them little motive for investing in grid upgrades that would help consumers use less electricity.

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