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Electric grid must be modernized

A few years ago, the National Academy of Engineering named "electrification" as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. And indeed, it's hard to overstate the importance of electricity to our nation's tremendous economic growth and progress over the past 100 years. But unfortunately, our electric delivery system -- our national grid -- is no longer adequate to meet the needs of a growing 21st economy. This problem was highlighted in President Bush's National Energy Policy of 2001, and while we've made progress, it remains a significant challenge for this country.

The Energy Information Administration estimates that between now and 2030, electricity consumption will grow by more than 40 percent. And even as we all continue to focus on conserving energy and improving the efficiency of our homes and businesses, we are looking at a significant amount of new demand. Our electric grid faces other challenges as well, including an increased need for higher reliability; a significant reliance on power generation sited far from load centers; a long period of underinvestment in transmission facilities; and a heightened susceptibility to errors and disasters, be they natural or man-made. So, though it continues to function well in general, our system is under duress.

What should we do? To truly transform our electric grid, we must continue to make substantial investments in research areas like high-temperature superconducting materials to allow for greater amounts of electricity to travel over the grid; information technologies that allow for distributed intelligence across the grid; and security improvements to defend against physical and cyber attacks. The Energy Department is working with private sector partners to do just that.

At the same time, government leaders at all levels must recognize that grid modernization efforts are in our national interest. This is easier said than done, of course. I certainly do not minimize the concerns of local communities and even individual landowners who may feel adversely impacted. But it is clear that the grid represents an urgent national problem. And it's a responsibility that we all share.

It is with this in mind that the Energy Department issued two draft National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor designations, in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

The first area, the Mid-Atlantic Area National Corridor, covers some or all counties in Delaware, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. The second area, the Southwest Area National Corridor, covers seven counties in southern California, three counties in western Arizona and one county in southern Nevada.

These draft designations were made after months of careful study and close consideration of public comments. They serve as an indication by the federal government that, at a regional level, a significant transmission constraint or congestion problem exists -- one that is adversely affecting consumers and that has advanced to the point where we have a national interest in alleviating it. On a more specific level, this designation is a necessary first step in providing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with siting authority that supplements existing state authority.

These draft corridors were designed to include areas where significant congestion problems or constraints exist and areas where there is a substantial amount of existing underutilized capacity as well as the potential for development of renewable energy generation. In other words, these corridors are meant to facilitate the process of connecting places that need relief with places that have the potential to supply more power.

And this work cannot happen soon enough. Analyses have shown that unless changes are made, problems will occur in San Diego by 2010, in New York and the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia area by 2011, in northern New Jersey by 2014 and in central Pennsylvania by 2019. These projections indicate an increasing risk of significant problems, such as involuntary service curtailments or even rolling blackouts.

With these draft designations, the Department of Energy is encouraging a full consideration of all options available to meet growing demand, including more local generation, transmission capacity, demand response and energy efficiency measures to meet these national growing electricity needs. We are not directing anyone to build a transmission facility in a certain area or determining the route for any proposed transmission facility. Nor are we asserting that additional transmission capacity is the only solution to resolve the congestion.

The federal government is not dictating how any state, region, transmission provider or electric utility should meet its energy challenges. Instead, we are saying that no matter what states and communities decide to do, new transmission capacity must be considered as part of the solution. And, as a nation, we must look at this question seriously: Where are we going to put it?

Transforming our nation's electric system is a great challenge. I believe that we can do it, and that we will do it. After all, we must do it: our economic future and well-being depends on it.

Samuel W. Bodman is U.S. secretary of energy.

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