James Surowieki has a column in the New Yorker talking about the crucial need to upgrade our national infrastructure, especially the electric grid, as well as making New York and other coastal cities safer from the inevitable effects of global warming. I’m going to focus on the electric grid:
Our power grid is, by the standards of the developed world, shockingly unreliable. A study by three Carnegie Mellon professors in 2006 found that average annual power outages in the U.S. last four times as long as those in France and seven times as long as those in the Netherlands. (The past two years’ data would likely be even worse.) This isn’t because of a lack of resources—the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy. But, though we may have the coolest twenty-first-century technology in our homes, we’re stuck with mid-twentieth-century roads and wires.
I think President Obama missed a big opportunity with the 2009 stimulus bill. I would like to have seen a major focus of that bill be a TVA-style project to upgrade the electric grid and, at the same time, make broadband internet access more widely available to rural areas. Part of the problem with upgrading the electric grid, of course, is that most of the transmission lines are privately owned. But if this is not a perfect target for eminent domain, I don’t know what is.
I’ve been a longtime critic of the abuse of eminent domain laws, but electric transmission lines are exactly the sort of thing that those laws are designed for and are necessary. Fragmentation of the ownership of transmission lines is a major hurdle in getting a comprehensive solution to make the entire network safer from disruption and better protected against attack. At the very least, the threat of eminent domain can be used to force the companies that own those lines to work together to upgrade the entire network.
It’s going to cost money, one way or the other. The federal government can pay for the whole upgrade, or some type of consortium of the electric companies can pool their resources, make the investment and pass on the costs to consumers. Either way, we all will have to pay a little more. But just like the other disaster prevention plans Surowiecki discusses, this will almost certainly be much cheaper in the long run than the cost of keeping the status quo.
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