How appropriate that the ailing Fidel Castro managed to intrude upon a fairly heavy news cycle, since the numerous power outages and rolling blackouts caused by the current heat wave have left so many American cities resembling Havana.
The Cuban capital has for years been notorious for routinely shutting off its residents' electricity, leaving them to sweat out the brutal Caribbean heat. Americans from coast to coast recently received a taste of that Castro legacy as temperatures soared to record highs, straining utilities and electricity distribution systems. The loss of power and air conditioning is being blamed for upward of 200 deaths nationwide. No city has suffered in quite the way Gotham has, where more than 100,000 residents suffered a complete loss of power -- some for nearly two weeks.
While the differences between the supremely wealthy United States and impoverished Cuba appear manifest, what's surprising is that politicians' prescriptions for dealing with the current crises differ little from what Cubans have been hearing for years: Use less. Do without. There's not enough power for everybody, and our grid would have trouble handling it if there were.
We call it "conservation." Leaders like President Bush and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have called for emergency conservation measures, urging consumers and businesses to use less power during peak times to keep the grid from getting overloaded. New York City's Bloomberg Administration suggested cutting back on the AC, dressing lightly, and drinking lots of fluids.
Certainly the wasteful use of energy should be minimized. But in terms of concrete strategies to achieve this, our policymakers are in the dark. Begging consumers to accept a little bit more suffering -- or in the cases of energy-intensive businesses and factories, to limit their economic output -- is about the only thing our leaders can do in a pinch. Plead for help from the citizenry, and hope the people take pity and comply.
But why should they? Why should de facto electricity policy have devolved over time into hoping it doesn't get too hot, but if it does, begging consumers to loosen their collars and stew with patience? It is precisely when temperatures are as high as they have been that consumers must expect their air conditioners to work.
Though the events of recent weeks are tied to broiling temperatures, the crisis is a manufactured one. No, you can't control the weather, but you can anticipate it. Extremely high temperatures in July and August are hardly a secret. It is the responsibility of state and local officials to ensure that there is enough power to meet the most extreme demand, and that the wires are capable of handling that strain.
Unlike Cuba, we have the technological ability to add capacity and generate more power. We have the technological ability to upgrade infrastructure to handle 21st century demand. And we even have the technological know-how to implement rational pricing systems, like real-time pricing, that would curb wasteful energy usage far better than plaintive pleas from pols. What is needed is the political will to overcome the regulatory and NIMBY hurdles.
That's the first requirement for a responsible energy policy. The current approach -- relying on the vagaries of Mother Nature and praying for mild weather -- is a poor excuse for leadership. It didn't work three decades ago when Jimmy Carter implored everyone to turn down the thermostat and wear sweaters in winter. It won't work today when Mayor Bloomberg urges everyone to turn down the AC and wear tank tops to beat the heat.