August 15: Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham Explains What Is Needed To Meet The Power Demands Of The 21st Century

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This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, August 15, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF ENERGY: This issue, which for years provokes yawns in the Congress, mandatory reliability standards, invest in new transmission lines, make our grid more modern, the problem is we're a super power with a third-world grid that has antiquated, that is old.


TONY SNOW, GUEST-HOST: All right. That's former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Joining us now, the present Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

The White House (search) has just issued an announcement that reads in part, ‘The United States and Canada today have agreed to form a joint task force to identify the causes of the recent power outage that affected North America and to seek solutions to help prevent future outages. The task force will be jointly chaired by United States Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Herb…’ I don't even want to try.


SNOW: Dhaliwal. Thank you very much. You saved me on that one.

Let's talk a little bit about the background here. Your department in the last several years put out a series of reports, especially about the transmission grid, and there were a couple of warnings. No. 1, is the system getting overburdened and No. 2, that there are absolutely no economic incentives right now for people to improve it, largely due to regulations first enacted in the 1930s. You've recommended changing that. How important is this that is deregulating electricity transmission to getting this problem solved?

ABRAHAM: Well, there is a lot of things that have to happen, Tony. I mean the system's old. The grid itself is old and it is not capable of meeting the growth we have in electricity demand. And part of the challenge we have…I'm not saying it could be the cause of the problems we have today. But part of the challenges we're going to have over the next 20 years is having a system that's modern.

And this administration from week one has been pushing very hard for the kinds of incentives you're talking about as well as for reliability standards that Congress must pass if we're going to have the kind of modern system we need.

SNOW: Now, a couple of objections have been…No. 1, environmental. People are complaining about the methods, not necessarily transmitting energy, but generating it. How important is it going to be for this administration to come up with new ways of generating electricity? And does the administration foresee trying once again to revive nuclear power as a significant source of electricity in the United States?

ABRAHAM: We support nuclear power (search). We need to have it as part of the energy mix. Although, keeping it at even its current 20 percent will be hard. In our budget, we spend considerable amounts of money on developing new energy sources, new electricity generation from renewable sources. But all of that is a long-term project.

Right now, our goal is to try to help the people who have been affected by these blackouts, by this power outage. And we're doing everything we can tonight and over the next days to make sure we address this problem quick living room

SNOW: Now, I gather when you take a look at the so-called congestion in the electrical grids, and there are three main grids in the country and lots of sub grids, that what happened yesterday in the northeast could just as easily happen in the southeast or the west. There are a lot of places in this country that are vulnerable to that kind of thing.

ABRAHAM: Well, it's premature to answer what will happen somewhere else. We don't know what happened yesterday. And one of the challenges, as you just indicated that I've been given, is to try to get to the bottom of the problem so that in the future it doesn't happen, either in the northeast or anywhere else. In the meantime, we are trying to get the system back up and operating.

But the system is set up in a way that if something does go off track, a lot of the generation shuts down for safety purposes. You shut down the nuclear reactor immediately so you don't have an inadequate cooling facility in place. And so some of these…these are fail-safe; they worked well but unfortunately, have ripple effect.

SNOW: A lot of people yesterday, when they heard the news said, uh- oh, terror. And the second thing they said is wow, we're vulnerable. How vulnerable?

ABRAHAM: Well, I think that kind of speculation is premature. We don't know what exactly happened here. What we know is we have a system that, for safety reasons is designed to take quick action to shut down facilities that could be problem nuclear reactors.

SNOW: Let's explain. It works like a circuit breaker.


SNOW: There is a surge in power. One theory is there is a surge in power and immediately different power systems start shutting down so that their own generators don't get overburdened, as you pointed out. They don't want to overheat; you don't want to lose the investment forever. And so boom, they go off and within nine seconds, you have this vast territory without electricity.

ABRAHAM: Yes. If you start having a lot of oscillation and the amount of power coming in and going out, the nuclear reactors will go to backup generation to maintain the cooling capabilities, but they will be off line. It takes them a while to get them back up. That is a bad thing in the sense that it means that there is an inadequate amount of power. It is a good thing in the sense that it means we're protected against terrorists or anybody from trying to tinker with the system to precipitate a problem at a nuclear reactor.

SNOW: Setting aside whatever may be the specific causes of what happened yesterday, when you're thinking about administration priorities now, when it comes to energy and an energy bill, what are the top items that the president really insists on having and wants Congress to act on quickly.

ABRAHAM: Well, we made it clear for three years almost that we needs an energy bill, we need to modernize the electricity rules and regulation so that we can address the demands of the 21st century. We need to produce more energy here in America so that we're less dependent on foreign sources. And we need improve the technologies. And one of the programs which our department has responsibility for; the Hydrogen Program is a key part of the future, I think, of new energy sources. We need the authorization to go ahead and build those hydrogen fuel (search) cell vehicles we're looking to do.

SNOW: When it comes to electricity generation, is the improvement you're talking about largely going to be private sector or is Uncle Sam going to have to foot a large part of the bill?

ABRAHAM: Our philosophy is that there is plenty of demand and that the private sector is in a position to make these investments. At the same time, they have to be able to builds the facilities. You touched on an important point. We have an inadequate transmission system. One of the challenges we have is getting people to agree that…allow for more transmission to be built in their communities, because people want the electricity, they just don't want the line to bring it to their home. And that's pretty much a mutually exclusive situation.

SNOW: All right. Spencer Abraham, energy secretary, thanks for joining us.

ABRAHAM: Tony, good to be here.

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