The U.S. electric grid will require major changes to reposition itself for the future challenges of climate change, new technologies, and national security in coming decades, according to a first-ever “Quadrennial Energy Review” released by the Obama administration.
The report says our system for getting electricity stands at a “strategic inflection point” and requires “significant change” in order to accommodate more renewables and the growth of distributed energy technologies like rooftop solar. And it says much the same for the rest of the U.S.’s sprawling, but often dated, power infrastructure.
The report comes at a time of major transition in the U.S. power sector. Solar and wind energy are expanding rapidly, and natural gas is gaining on coal. Meanwhile, the administration is pursuing a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions by power plants. The new developments, combined with risks related to extreme weather, terrorism, cyber-attacks and aging infrastructure, make this a transformative moment for the nation’s power backbone.
In particular, the document envisions increased threats from climate extremes and cyber-hackers, but also much opportunity to create jobs, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and empower consumers if the right changes to the energy system are adopted today.
“The United States’ energy system is going through dramatic changes,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz of the release of the report. “This places a high premium on investing wisely in the energy infrastructure we need to move energy supplies to energy consumers.”
Overall, notes the Quadrennial Energy Review, the nation’s energy infrastructure consists of a staggering “approximately 2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines; about 640,000 miles of transmission lines; 414 natural gas storage facilities; 330 ports handling crude petroleum and refined petroleum products; and more than 140,000 miles of railways that handle crude petroleum” and other fossil energy products.
And much of it is dated. There has been a “lack of timely investment in refurbishing, replacing, and modernizing components of [energy] infrastructure that are simply old or obsolete,” says the document. The report highlights one example in particular — almost half of the country’s “gas transmission and gathering pipelines,” it says, were built the 1950s and 1960s in a wave of construction following World War II.
The modern world, meanwhile, poses radically new challenges to infrastructure.
“Threats to the grid — ranging from geomagnetic storms that can knock out crucial transformers; to terrorist attacks on transmission lines and substations; to more flooding, faster sea-level rise, and increasingly powerful storms from global climate change — have been growing even as society’s dependence on the grid has increased,” says the document.
The document will be discussed Tuesday Vice President Joe Biden at an event at the power company PECO in Philadelphia, where he will be accompanied by Moniz and White House science adviser John Holdren.
Work on the Quadrennial Energy Review began after President Obama rolled out the Clean Power Plan in 2013, an effort to review the nation’s energy system at a time of what it called a “dramatically changing energy landscape.” The review is similar to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, a widely followed periodic assessment of the nation’s defense capabilities, but compiled by a broader set of government agencies.
The U.S.’s electricity grid is one of the world’s strongest, the document admits. Yet the energy grid of the future does not, in most expert descriptions, look much like the one of today — it needs to make room for more distributed energy generation enabled by innovations like rooftop solar, as well as much more renewable power in general and, perhaps, more battery-based storage options for power.
Therefore, the Energy Department document calls for large federal investments over ten years to modernize the grid and improve energy security, including programs to strengthen natural gas systems, help states identify their power vulnerabilities, and move to “mitigate the risks associated with loss of transformers,” which the document calls one of the “most vulnerable components” of the grid.
Some industry voices have suggested that the Clean Power Plan itself — the administration’s flagship climate policy move — will weaken the reliability of the U.S. grid, switching out the steady power delivery of coal-fired electricity for more inherently intermittent renewable sources, like solar and wind.
The Quadrennial Energy Review’s approach is different. The document acknowledges major energy infrastructure challenges, while nonetheless continually returning to the vital need to address climate change. For indeed, the report notes, a changing climate itself poses grid security challenges due to increases in extreme weather (events like the “polar vortex” can lead to large bulges in energy demand), rising seas (which could threaten low-lying power infrastructure), and other forecast changes.
At the same time, two administrative agency moves seek to coordinate an Energy Department partnership with major utilities like Exelon, National Grid, and Pacific Gas and Electric to improve “resilience” to extreme weather and climate threats, and a Department of Agriculture program to encourage solar energy and other new power infrastructure in rural areas.
Energy infrastructure is a key enabler of a clean energy future,” said Moniz, “and this review will help us address both the challenges and opportunities associated with developing our abundant energy resources.”