Gas lines? Rationing? Is it the '70s again?

Back then, America's economy was over-reliant on oil. Now, its dependent on an electric grid that needs to be modernized.

Frank Eltman/AP
Motorists in wait in line for gasoline outside a Hess station on Wednesday in Farmingdale, N.Y. The shortage of open gas stations got so dire that New Jersey has imposed gas rationing that took effect Nov. 3, 2012.

No one who lived through the first OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s can forget the shock of that era. The United States seemed helpless economically. And Americans realized just how dependent they had become on oil from the Middle East.

The scenes this past week of blocks-long gas lines in New York and New Jersey are eerily similar.

Taking a page from Richard Nixon, New Jersey Gov. Christie imposed gas rationing on 12 of the state's 21 counties, effective noon Saturday.

But for all the similarities, this isn't a replay of the 1970s. The challenge then was a long-term shortage of oil. Today, it's a temporary shortage of electricity.

If there is a shock to the regional crisis that now engulfs the Northeast, it's our increasing reliance on electricity. The digital age is great, but it blinks out in an instant when the power goes down and it depends on an electrical grid that's a 20th century throwback.

That's not to say the electric grid has evolved and modernized, but it's based on a centralized model that looks out of place in our distributed Internet age.

"The electricity industry is today where the telco industry was 20 years ago, which at that time offered little or no customer service, hardly any competition, and no choice of devices and applications that suited the user," concluded a Research and Markets report late last month.

"The fundamental architecture of today's electricity grid – based on the idea of a top-down system predicated on unidirectional energy flows – is becoming obsolete, and is unsuited for the increasing diversity and variability of power generation," a Navigant report stated, just days before hurricane Sandy hit.

Micro-grids, dynamic pricing, better batteries are pieces of a more efficient and storm-proof grid.

Implementing them into a 21st-century grid will cost money. American ratepayers will have to pony up.

But there are some long-term savings to moving forward. According to a Congressional Research Service report from August, storm-related power outages cost the US economy between $20 billion and $55 billion.

The stranded people of New Jersey and New York will understand.

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