As hundreds of thousands swelter without power a week after a violent storm pummeled the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, energy experts say the future will look even worse if the nation's aging, congested electrical grid isn't upgraded.
Customers chafe at rising utility bills, but the energy industry warns that the alternative is even scarier: Unless $673 billion is invested in the system, it could break down by 2020, according to an American Society of Civil Engineers report released in April.
The grid's dependability has become an increasing concern as the system strains to meet increased demand. Bottlenecks in the grid and equipment failures are causing more brownouts and blackouts, energy experts say.
The civil engineers say that if investment in the system isn't increased by at least $1 billion a year, service interruptions between now and 2020 will cost $197 billion.
"The consequences of the brownouts and power surges will cost more than the rising rates," says Steven Landau, an economic consultant who was the lead author of the ASCE report. "It's a problem that's important to solve because, more and more, we evolve as a technological society by plugging things into the wall."
As NPR reported back in 2009, even as America has become a digital culture ever more dependent on electricity, the basic principles of power delivery haven't changed much since Thomas Edison flipped on the first commercial power grid in lower Manhattan on Sept. 4, 1882.
For years, people in the energy industry have warned that enormous improvements to the infrastructure are needed to accommodate the nation's population increases, as well as its increased reliance on electricity. Yet their concerns often don't gain wide attention until communities sustain brownouts or blackouts — particularly caused by severe weather.
The latest series of storms raged from Michigan to the Atlantic, killing at least 26 and leaving 3 million without power.
"The interesting thing about all this is that events like this sensitize people to the importance of electricity and of the grid, and how much we all depend on the delivery of electricity," says Jim Hoecker, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "The economic costs to the citizens, to their standard of living, would be enormous in terms of loss of productivity, loss of jobs ... as a result of a failure to invest now."
Power losses during storms usually aren't the result of failures in the grid, but of high winds, lightning and other weather factors that damage equipment and power lines. Where grid weaknesses really hurt is after storms, when old, poorly maintained equipment in local power systems can delay restoration of service.
The nation's electric grid is regarded as one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century, rivaled only by the interstate highway system. It is a complex patchwork of nearly 6,000 power plants, 450,000 miles of transmission lines and regional delivery systems that serve every community in the country. A flick of a switch or push of a button delivers power through this vast system instantly.
The grid is made up of three primary components: power plants, a national network of transmission towers and lines, and local distribution substations and lines. Power plants convert energy sources (such as coal, nuclear, natural gas and wind) to electricity, which is carried by high-voltage transmission lines to regional distribution facilities.
The worst problems are found in the components that carry electricity across the nation and deliver it to customers. The civil engineers society found that more than two-thirds of the system's transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old. The group says 60 percent of the circuit breakers have been in use for more than 30 years.
Utility companies have drawn increased criticism for outages at the distribution level, where low-voltage lines run along streets, overhead or underground, and wires bring electricity to homes and businesses. In 2003, an Ohio utility failed to trim overgrown trees that eventually damaged power lines and knocked out power for 50 million customers across the Northeast for up to two days.
The primary power company in the Washington, D.C., area, Pepco, was fined $1 million last winter by Maryland regulators for failing to fix problems that led to frequent outages. In part because of decreased spending on tree-trimming, Pepco's reliability in recent years has dropped to among the worst in the nation, according to The Washington Post. In 2009, the Post reported, when stormy days are excluded, Pepco customers coped with 70 percent more outages than the customers of utilities in other large cities.
Hoecker says "regulators have a role to play" in raising local requirements for reliability.
As state and local officials have pressured utilities to improve service, a popular recommendation has been to bury power lines underground to avoid damage from weather and trees.
But the work is far more expensive than building overhead lines, and the costs often are passed to customers. In the St. Louis area, Ameren buried about 200 miles of lines — in response to outcries over weather-related outages — and partially offset the cost by raising rates.
"Certainly it can help. But when there is an outage underground, it's a lot harder to find the problem and fix it," says Jon Jipping, chief operating officer at ITC Holdings Corp., which operates high-voltage transmission lines in the Midwest. "If we keep up with the infrastructure, keep up with the maintenance, the system we have has shown that it's a pretty reliable."