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Energy Chief: Deter Blackouts

As hot, steamy weather smothered the Northeast last weekend, heat index readings were in the 100s in many areas. Day after day, air conditioners have been cherished, though with some unpleasant results: Throughout the month, hundreds of thousands of Americans along the East Coast have lost power.

The problem is that demand for electricity is rising faster than supply.

To deal with the growing problem, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced a six-point federal plan to reduce the threat of power blackouts during severe weather, saying consumers shouldn't have to wonder whether the lights will go out the next time the thermometer hits 90 degrees.

Richardson, in a speech in San Francisco Monday to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, urged Congress to move quickly on legislation to make the electric power industry more competitive and efficient.

Electric power, Richardson said, "can be a matter of life and death." He referred to outages in New York City and other areas along the East Coast earlier this month when hundreds of thousands lost service during a serious heat wave.

Last year, he said, there was "near panic" in the wholesale market in the Midwest because of shortages, sending prices to record levels, and California recently experienced a record peak demand, he said. In response, the Department of Energy plans to:

  • Convene a Northeast regional power summit.
  • Investigate power outages.
  • Speed new federal standards for more efficient air conditioners.
  • Study the nation's electricity capacity and the ability to meet future needs.
  • Cut federal consumption during emergencies. (Currently, he said, the federal government, the nation's largest user of electricity, has no general plan for cutting back consumption during shortages.)
  • Develop new generation and transmission technologies.

Richardson told The Associated Press he also wants to signal the need to develop solar, wind, biomass and other renewable sources of energy.

He has urged Congress to send an electric power restructuring bill to Congress before the end of the year, he said. "It is imperative that Congress act sooner, rather than later. Utilities, marketers, consumers and state regulators need to know what the federal rules of the road will be."

Twenty-four states already have adopted electric restructuring programs that provide for more competition and consumer choice. But other states have put off decisions about new generation and transmission resources because of uncertainty about the future of federal rules.

Several key members of Congress, including House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, are working on deregulation legislation.

Richardson said the administration welcomes the trend toward decentralization and does not want to interfere with state effortto improve service.

"But as we move from monopolies to consumer choice, we must get it right," Richardson said. "I believe that this will require a collaborative effort between the states and the federal government."