THE REMINDER last week that daily life can be cast back to the Gilded Age at the flick of a circuit breaker was sobering. But even that might not push lawmakers past their sluggish, top-heavy approach to the nation's energy policy.
Take the ponderous bills that House and Senate committees have debated over the past few years and are to start cobbling together next month - please.
Congress doesn't need to reach consensus on the merits of fuel-efficient cars or drilling in Alaska before agreeing that the nation's creaky transmission connectors need fixing. And the lawmakers shouldn't slow critical fixes just to pack political pork into yet another bill.
The first, quickest step to ensuring a constant flow of juice is a separate bill to give the North American Electric Reliability Council the power to create and enforce reliability standards across the grids.
Formed after the 1965 Northeast blackout, the council is meant to ensure that the power grid is stable in each of its geographically defined regions by persuading utilities and distributors to coordinate, cooperate and maintain infrastructure. It sets rules for transmission, but they are merely voluntary guidelines and not always followed. And there is no punishment for not cooperating across the network or for causing trouble down the line.
Giving the council teeth would ensure that transmission firms hew to standards such as how much energy a power line should carry, how much capacity should be available for backup and when to tell your neighbor down the grid that there's a problem. It also would ensure that generators and distributors - the grid's givers and takers - know exactly what they are getting, and who to blame if the system breaks down.
Such a plan has been part of the energy bills debated - and stalled - in Congress since 1999. It must not be logjammed again.
While that would help solve the problems of shifting standards and loads across state lines and an uncoordinated emergency response, the problem of bottlenecks remains. The transmission grid was built to move power within - not between - utility areas. And though there has been some improvement, the interconnections are still few, and frequently overloaded.
State public utilities commissions have sole authority to license and site new transmission equipment, which has often led to self-interested decisions or such extended debate that nothing gets done. Regional transmission firms that might invest in upgrades often see their efforts stalled by a single state or are unsure whether they can pass some costs on to generators or to consumers because each state's rules vary.
A plan such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's to tie North American utility groups into one standardized power market deserves a speedy hearing, not another endless postponement, as the Bush administration proposes.
Power lines crisscross state lines; their supervision - and their protection - is a regional and federal issue. Congress and the administration should not dawdle any longer on methods to keep the lights on.