Time for America to Get Tough

Recent severe weather events make clear that we have to take action now on hardening and upgrading America's energy infrastructure. To underscore the urgency, this summer's weather will again stress our existing energy infrastructure with prolonged high temperatures and severe storms according to a recent energy market and reliability assessment by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff.

Just this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg demonstrated needed leadership in announcing a plan to rebuild the infrastructure in New York City to better withstand what is a clear and present threat from future weather related events.

Just look at the facts:

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the two-year total of "billion-dollar"-damage weather events for 2012, is now up to 25 incidents. From 2011 to 2012 these 25 "billion-dollar damage" weather events in the United States are estimated to have caused up to $188 billion in total damage. The two costliest events were the September 2012 drought -- the worst drought in half a century, impacting nearly two-thirds of the continental United States -- and superstorm Sandy, which battered the northeast coast in late October 2012.

Almost 70 percent of U.S. counties and 43 states were affected by "billion-dollar damage" extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. Over 1,000 fatalities resulted from these severe weather events. This year has already seen record-breaking tornadic events in my home state of Oklahoma.

The stakes couldn't be higher.

These weather events would pose a challenge even to the most up-to-date energy infrastructure, which the U.S. simply doesn't have. Our electric transmission system is particularly vulnerable. Our antiquated network has been patched up on a piecemeal basis for years, generally only receiving attention when there is major event.

Making the critical improvements isn't cheap, but the upfront cost is a wise investment that will pay off for generations to come. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that "a dollar spent on [pre-disaster] mitigation saves society an average of $4" in avoided damage costs.

The first step should be development of an annual state preparedness plan for severe weather events and other catastrophes. My home state of Oklahoma has such a plan, as do other states like Massachusetts, both of which have laws requiring the agencies responsible to set performance standards governing emergency preparation and restoration of service after a power outage, as well as establish reporting requirements. In Massachusetts, the law compelled utilities to set up storm response plans, and it set penalties for noncompliance.

Regulated utilities routinely come to state regulators to recover the cost of replacing the system lost to a disaster, and too often allow full recovery without requiring the system be improved and hardened for the future risks. Examples of such requirements include replacing wooden towers with concrete or steel, undergrounding distribution systems where practical, and hardening or relocating switching stations and substations.

Even the simple things can pay big dividends. We found in Oklahoma that better vegetation management around power lines was one of the most effective ways to avoid costly and lengthy outages. So-called "smart" meters, already in place for some 43 million customers, can also play an important role as they can make restoration of service to customer much faster.

Finally, it's important to remember that regardless of the weather, an upgrade of our energy infrastructure is long overdue to support economic growth and the addition of new sources of renewable energy.

As states move individually, they also must work collectively. They must do a better job of working together across state lines to prepare for the future. This vital work can take place at the regional level with regional transmission organizations, which work with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The most important tool is advanced planning. It is changing our mindset to not react to a disaster instead of being proactive to avoid the very real threats we are facing.

So much in our economy depends on our utility infrastructure particularly the delivery of energy. And our very lives depend upon it. Leadership and cooperation is needed to assess the risk we are facing from these severe weather events and take action to protect America.