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Consensus to fix power grid, but no unity on how

Blackout has led to calls for more regulation and for Congress to pass long-delayed energy bill.

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The worst blackout in US history has moved improvement of the nation's electrical grid to the top of Washington's fall policy agenda.

Congress is already planning a range of hearings into what went wrong, while administration officials are calling again for passage of the mammoth energy bill now plodding through the legislative process.

But agreement about the issue's importance doesn't mean consensus about what should be done. The politics of electricity are so complicated they make, say, Medicare reform look routine by comparison.

Grid issues pit region against region as much as party against party.

They involve such hot-button questions as whether federal regulation of local markets is appropriate, or stifling. Moreover, the nature of the US electrical system is such that its problems defy simple solutions. Old-fashioned regional utilities work next to unfettered commercial power firms, all using transmission lines erected in the era of rotary phones. Thus whatever Washington does in coming months will probably be - at best - a partial fix.

"Everyone has understood for a long time there are some serious problems with the power system," says Bruce Everett, an energy expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Experts don't know yet exactly what caused last Thursday's rolling blackout. The crisis may, or may not, have begun with the failure of an Ohio power line. Instability in the Northeastern electrical grid may have exacerbated this problem.

In the end, determining why the blackout spread might be more important than pinpointing its trigger. In theory the nation's electrical system is supposed to isolate such a blackout. The fact that it did not means there may be faults in the US grid's contagion prevention system. "Things go wrong quite a lot, but they're usually geographically contained," says Peter VanDoren, an expert on electricity issues at the Cato Institute.

But even without definitive reports on the blackout's nature, Washington was moving already to address known or perceived faults in the US electrical system. One move appears to have strong bipartisan support: giving more enforcement power to the now-voluntary industry group that oversees electrical transmission standards.


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