In the United States, public debates surrounding energy policy focus on generation, carbon emissions, and cost. But all is for naught if the infrastructure that carries power isn’t appropriate for the changing energy mix or can’t keep up because it’s crumbling. With new technologies rising faster than sea level on a hot planet, the United States is in the midst of the biggest energy boom in 60 years. We have more natural gas, coal, and uranium than we need for several hundred years; new and better solar cells; new biofuel technologies to replace ethanol; and even more oil than we thought we had. The source of energy isn’t the problem for our future. It’s how we capture it and move it around the country that is critical.
We are headed for a big disappointment if we don’t upgrade our energy infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave America a D+ for our infrastructure overall. Energy alone got a D+. We have over 3,000 total power outages each year. We accept an outdated 1950s decaying electrical grid that leaks electricity to the ether and is falling apart faster than we are repairing it. Blackouts, brownouts, blown transformers, downed power lines, and other continuous grid problems alone cost Americans $150 billion each year, an amount that will keep growing. The big transformers weigh 400 tons, cost $7 million each, and take two years to replace. They are failing at 10 times the rate as in 1980.
Although many Americans say they want new renewables and natural gas, whenever new transmission lines or gas pipelines are proposed to reach those areas, they are voted down. The 115th Congress’s USA Infrastructure Act went nowhere, although Democrat control of the House could change the situation.
Opportunities to improve the functioning and reliability of the grid arise from technological developments in sensing, communications, control, and power electronics. These technologies can enhance efficiency and reliability, increase capacity utilization, enable more rapid response to remediate contingencies, and increase flexibility in controlling power flows on transmission lines. But it will take $2 trillion between now and 2040 to keep the lights on for the second half of this century.