Have utilities gotten any smarter since then? Partially. It took them forever to admit that dropping demand wasn't tied to the economy and that a rebound of electric use wasn't just over the horizon. However, some utilities have simply moved on to other unsound business plans that continue to bank on the same old ideas that are no longer sustainable.
Now utilities have moved on to transmission investments as their savior. This is pretty puzzling, considering that long-distance transmission champion AEP concluded a year ago that enormous projects built across multiple states were an impossible dream.
Mr. Akins said he wants to avoid the bruising battles that delayed or doomed big projects in the past, like the 275-mile Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline project from West Virginia to Maryland. AEP and partner FirstEnergy Corp. dropped development plans for the complex project in 2011.
"Sometimes, we were just dreaming" that the companies could get enormous power lines built across multiple states, Mr. Akins said. He said AEP now is focusing on shorter projects blessed by federal regulators that eliminate grid bottlenecks. "It's where you want to put your money," he said.
Instead of embracing innovation and new technology to make the existing grid smarter, some utilities are intent on merely building more of the same old dumb grid, or actively attempting to stifle innovation by forcing us all into an historic "consumer" position where we must funnel money to incumbent utilities in order to survive. Ultimately, this plan will also fail, because technology marches relentlessly on.
How we produce and use electricity is also changing. Not only is producing our own electricity locally better for our economy, it's also much more reliable. Hurricane Sandy was one of the biggest wake-up calls we've had recently, and the inevitable Monday morning quarterbacking of that disaster reveals that increasing long distance, aerial transmission from remote generation is simply dangerous. Making our grid more reliable isn't about building more transmission. It's about change:
This includes traditional tactics, such as upgrading power poles and trimming trees near power lines. But it also encompasses newer approaches, such as microgrids and energy storage, which allow operators to quickly reconfigure the system when portions of the grid go down. Implicit to such plans is the need to ensure uninterrupted power to critical sites such as oil and gas refineries, water-treatment plants, and telecommunication networks, as well as gasoline stations, hospitals, and pharmacies.
Some of the nation’s leaders seem receptive to such approaches.