The United States Transmission networks face many challenges – aging, rising outages, and the impacts of severe weather events are becoming more frequent.
The Reuters article, “Creaky US power grid threatens progress on renewables, EVs,” presents that improving the US electric grid will boost the uptake of clean energy in the United States and EVs and meet President Joe Biden’s climate targets and ambitions. However, failing to invest in its power infrastructure will undermine the progress of renewables and derail the US carbon emissions goals.
The cost of upgrading the US electric infrastructure
Clean energy is booming. The US Electric car sales are up, complemented by strong wind and solar power growth to combat climate change. But aging electric infrastructure could thwart this momentum. According to industry experts overhauling the country’s power infrastructure will require more than US$2 trillion.
Increase in the number of power outages and extreme weather events
The article says power outages have doubled in the last six years. Severe weather events have revealed the weaknesses of US power infrastructure. Outages between 2015 and 2020 averaged 9,656 annually, twice the number of incidents in the last six years, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a grid regulator.
But despite the rising number of extreme weather events, some regional grid operators in the country underestimate the growing threat. The article notes that these operators still use outdated risk models, extending as far back as the 1970s and not accounting for the changing weather patterns, to guide transmission network investments.
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information shows that between 2002 and 2021, the US experienced 229 weather events costing more than $1 billion in damage, compared to just 94 from 1980 to 2001.
The country’s dilapidated power infrastructure is the most significant obstacle to expanding its clean energy and could undermine carbon emissions goals.
President Joe Biden’s administration promises to offset or eliminate CO2 emissions from the power sector by 2035 and its entire economy by 2050.
Challenges in expanding clean energy in the United States
Upgrading the transmission networks and lines is a prerequisite to attracting more competition to expand renewable energy. Still, the task is fraught with many challenges, including navigating through the complex regulatory rules in the United States, keeping the electric bills low to avoid opposition from consumers and politicians, and preventing other companies from competing on the state’s turf.
The article explains:
“Under the current regulatory regime, the needed infrastructure investments are instead controlled by a Byzantine web of local, state, and regional regulators who have strong political incentives to hold down spending, according to Reuters interviews with grid operators, federal and state regulators, and executives from utilities and construction firms.”
“Paying for major grid upgrades would require these regulators to sign off on rate increases likely to spark strong opposition from consumers and local and state politicians, keen to keep utility bills low. In addition, utility companies often fight investments in transmission-network improvements because they can bring new connections to other regional grids that could allow rival companies to compete on their turf. With the advance of green energy, those inter-regional connections will become ever more essential to move power from far-flung solar and wind installations to population centers.”
“The power-sharing among states and regions with often conflicting interests makes it extremely challenging to coordinate any national strategy to modernize the grid, said Alison Silverstein, an independent industry consultant and former senior adviser to the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).”
FERC Commissioner Mark Christie acknowledged the limitations of the agency’s power over the US grid involving transmission planning and costs, saying that they can’t force the states to do anything.
However, in April, the White House Energy Department released a statement that it plans to offer $2.5 billion for grid modernization as part of Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package.
A massive task that belongs to no one
The article notes that although there are two top regulators of the US electricity systems – FERC regulates the power prices, and NERC enforces reliability standards and issues fines during blackouts – none has the authority to fix or upgrade the nation’s grid problem to achieve Washington’s green-energy ambitions.
“Responsibility for grid maintenance, upgrades, and inter-regional connections is shared among state and local regulators, utility companies, and the seven grid operators. The operators have little independent power over modernization; instead, they are associations whose members are largely utilities and local regulators”.
Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, says that the system is failing because none of the players individually have the power nor responsibility to maintain the US grid; instead, they prioritize provincial interests in terms of utility profits or low consumer rates.
There is a massive potential for renewable energy to meet energy demands, but the lack of transmission lines hinders these possibilities.
“We can send a rover to Mars, but we can’t send an electron to California from New York,” says US special climate envoy John Kerry during the March CERAWeek energy conference in Houston.
The US Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity March 2022 report affirms the problem. The report finds that “Essentially no major interregional transmission projects have been planned and built in the last decade.” The report blames federal and state policymakers and regional grid operators for “insufficient leadership.”
From an infrastructure management viewpoint, there are significant opportunities in the US power grid space for applying integrated and holistic infrastructure management planning and practices.