NEW YORK – The United States needs a major overhaul of the electric grid if the country is to meet its economic ambitions and President Barack Obama's hoped-for green revolution, experts say.
While there has been no repeat of a power cut on the scale of the massive blackout that hit New York and the surrounding area in 2003, underlying problems remain, said Otto Lynch, vice president at Power Line Systems.
"There are certain bottlenecks all around the nation," he said. "There is a very strong possibility that blackout will happen again."
Lynch helped prepare a report published last week by American Society of Civil Engineers which found that the country's infrastructure is in dire condition and acting as a drag on US economic performance.
Electricity supply is actually one of the brighter points, with experts noting some improvements since 2005.
However, with demand surging - up 25 percent since 1995 - the network will need some 1.5 trillion dollars in investment over the next two decades in order to cope, the report found.
Obama has made rebuilding transport and power networks a priority for helping the country claw its way out of a deepening economic slump.
He is also pushing an ambitious programme to move the United States away from dependency on imported oil, an expensive habit that most foreign policy experts also see as endangering national security.
For electricity, modernization must start with the network of 160,000 miles (257,000 kilometers) of high voltage lines, Lynch said.
"Our transmission grid is very full. It is at or near capacity," Lynch said. "If we lose one line due to a national event it strains the rest of the system even more."
That was the problem when a blackout hit the entire northeast near New York on August 14, 2003, affecting 40 million people for a day. In California, rationing is introduced every year to deliberately reduce supplies to certain areas in what is known as a brownout.
"Our biggest problem is building enough transmission lines to adequately transfer the power where it is needed and allow us to have redundant system for the maintenance," Lynch said.
Revis James, from the Electric Power Research Institute, advised the Obama team in the presidential election campaign and says that quick change is impossible.
"There will be a gradual shift. There will be no electrical revolution," he said.
Lynch added that problems are not only technical.
Building windfarms and encouraging drivers to switch to electric cars is useless without an adequate distribution network, while new transmission lines are far from popular.
"We need to build transmission lines if they want to have an electric car they can plug in during the night," Lynch said. "The problem is people don't want transmission lines. They don't want a transmission line in their backyard and they will fight it."
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