Investing in a strategy for America

Just over a month has passed since the inauguration of Barack Obama. During this time top level jobs in the administration are being filled and an historic stimulus package has been passed. It is not clear what the impact these economic measures will have, but many experts insist that the size and scope of the stimulus package is necessary. Not being an economist myself, I am forced to take their word for it. But as a strategist, I worry that the “plan” is largely tactical in nature. America needs to invest in a strategy– at least one big project, preferably more, that could be undertaken and finished. They should be ones that will enhance American competitiveness, offer good paying jobs, and give us something to show for the unprecedented money that we are expending for this recovery.

This month I had the opportunity to delve into one such proposal in considerable depth. The electrical grid, mentioned so often by President Obama, former Vice President Al Gore and others, is a modernization and expansion project that is strategic in nature and vital for our country’s long-term economic prosperity. For more than a hundred years, the grid has evolved. It has been stitched together to meet immediate and medium range objectives. Today this patchwork system needs not only upgrades to promote efficiency and avert congestion, it also needs a skeleton or “back bone” –much like the Interstate Highway System that offers speed while interconnecting with state and local roads, through on and off ramps. A backbone grid can provide the high speed transport of electricity from the sources of electrical generation to other parts of the country. Crucially such a “grid overlay” will be essential if the United States is serious about bringing on- line renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, as they are developed. Many of the places where these are most abundant are areas not currently connected to the grid. 

Earlier this month, on February 11, I had the opportunity to visit Charleston, West Virginia to see for myself what the people of that state are thinking about these issues. The evening after my presentation to the West Virginia Roundtable, Governor Joe Manchin gave his State of the State address. In it he challenged West Virginians to think broadly about energy, and to find ways to diversify West Virginia’s energy mix. One could sense the state’s keen interest in how the nation will be crafting its energy strategy.

The following week, I went to Columbus, Ohio to visit American Electrical Power’s headquarters and facilities. It was an extraordinary experience to see the “command center” where electrical loads are managed over major parts of the United States. This is the nerve center of AEP’s operations. Here technicians assure that electricity flows freely within its service area, furnishing us with the electricity we have come to take for granted. I look forward to writing about that visit in greater detail in the coming weeks.

But right now? I’m back on the road again—this time to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma—and another forum on America’s energy strategy.

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