SOCIETY frets so much about how electricity is made (gas vs. coal vs. wind vs. etc.) and so little about how power leaves the generating plant.
At the other end, customers fret so much about outages caused by the weather's effect on residential lines and so little about how power gets to a neighborhood in the first place.
How it gets from the plant to the porch light is through an aging transmission grid that's under tremendous strain. High-voltage transmission lines are the often-forgotten lifeblood of a grid with hundreds of thousands of miles of lines, but neighborhood power poles are just as integral.
Infrastructure shortcomings are magnified by external events. One of them is the effect from intense solar activity expected next year. No one knows how severe or widespread these effects will be. In hindsight, concerns over a Y2K meltdown were overwrought, so skepticism is in order.
Nevertheless, some fears of the perfect sturm und drang (turmoil) over the power grid are not without basis.
Power grid consultant John Kappenman told The Wall Street Journal last week that extreme solar activity could cause blackouts lasting weeks or months and render some major cities temporarily uninhabitable. “This is arguably the largest natural disaster scenario that the nation could face,” Kappenman said.
His is a worst-case scenario doubted by other experts in the field. Still, utilities are aware of the 2013 forecasts and studying their systems for vulnerability. This country is more dependent on electricity — no matter how it's generated — than ever before. Any disruption has the potential for economic catastrophe.
Fretting about solar flares is one thing. That's certainly something we can't control but only manage. By contrast, we can and must worry about the transmission system. And this is something that we can control.
The Tulsa World cites a 2010 study estimating that 50 percent of power poles in this country are 30 to 50 years old and nearing the end of their life cycle. We're already spending $10 billion a year to replace or upgrade transmission lines. This appears to be only a fraction of what will need to be spent to keep the iPads charged.
Disagreement among utilities over cost-sharing pacts for transmission system upgrades can delay improvements. Public utilities, state regulators and the federal government have distinct roles in keeping the grid running and preparing for natural disasters, from windstorms that affect neighborhoods, to ice storms that affect regions, to solar flares that could affect vast areas.
Ultimately, consumers and taxpayers will cover the costs of transmission system upgrades. This is all the more reason to keep electricity costs as low as possible through policy that blends reasonable regulation and sensible environmental protections with the diversification of fuel choices for power generation.
We need to stop fretting so much about how power is made and start worrying more about how it reaches the outlets in our walls.