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Monday April 3 12:44 PM ET

Richardson Warns Summer May Bring Power Outages

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on Monday warned that Americans may experience power outages this summer, and indirectly blamed Congress for exacerbating the problem by not enacting federal legislation for restructuring the $230 billion power sector.

``We need to move on reliability legislation. I'm worried about summer outages. And the Congress by delaying action on electric restructuring could contribute to more summer outages this summer,'' Richardson said, speaking to reporters after an energy department event.

Cities like New York and Chicago were hit by power outages during peak demand periods for air conditioning last summer, highlighting for many policymakers the need to revamp reliability rules for the rapidly changing power sector.

Richardson said concerns about OPEC oil production increases were now ``old news,'' and said people should now focus on the need for congressional action on electricity issues.

``...We're worried quite frankly about summer outages and the lack of capacity and distribution,'' Richardson said. To stress the point, Richardson said over the next month he will lead electricity ``summits'' in Sacramento, Calif., Hartford, Conn., New Orleans, La., and the state of New Jersey.

Lawmakers, utility company officials and other parties are to meet in the cities and discuss the status of restructuring.

A Department of Energy report in March said uneven deregulation of the bulk wholesale power market, and a lack of market-based guidelines, helped cause the outages last summer.

Agency experts said a number of steps were needed to sooth the overburdened power delivery system, including new mandatory reliability standards for bulk power, removal of barriers to distributed energy and monitoring and assessing reliability.

Congressional action on reliability is currently tied to what happens on comprehensive plans for overhauling federal regulation of the power sector.

Though 24 states have acted to open power markets to the retail level, federal legislation to rewrite a web of regulation is currently tied-up in the House Commerce Committee. Separate, stand-alone reliability legislation has been introduced in Congress, but support for piecemeal restructuring bills has been tepid.

The Clinton administration opposes the comprehensive bill in the House, favoring its own restructuring plan.

Richardson has said he is willing to negotiate with Republican congressional leaders, but the administration thinks the current proposal lacks sufficient environmental and consumer protections.

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