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In government shutdown, who keeps the lights on?

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Travis Morisse/The Hutchinson News/AP

(Read caption) Transmission lines cross properties near Offerle, Kan. Federal energy agencies use carryover funds from previous years to function normally during a lapse of appropriations.

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Amid the government shutdown, at least two departments are keeping the lights on – for now.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) continue to operate under "normal conditions" Thursday, according to officials from the two agencies. An extended shutdown, however, would force a reduction of staff at the two agencies that work together to ensure the security and reliability of the nation's electric grid. It's an important task.

"This infrastructure underpins our economy, our quality of life and everything we depend on," Massoud Amin, professor and director of the University of Minnesota's Technological Leadership Institute, said in a telephone interview. "Unfortunately, we often take it for granted and we only notice it when it fails.  And we completely forget about it a few months after that failure and move on to the most pressing issues of the day."

State-level commissions and private companies operate the vast majority of the grid's day-to-day operations, but in emergencies and in the long term both federal agencies play an important role. The Energy Department conducts research and offers funding for enhancements to an aging grid. FERC regulates interstate electricity sales, oil pipelines, and energy markets. Both agencies coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security on long-term cybersecurity issues.

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