The ice, snow and frigid temperatures that brought the Texas power grid to its knees should be a wake-up call for massive investment to modernize and harden the nation’s power networks rather than revert to non-productive finger-pointing and scapegoating.
For perspective, California’s power grid also nearly crashed because of extreme weather. The energy priorities of Texas and California couldn’t be more opposite. The truth is the problems besetting power grids are more fundamental than energy deregulation or green energy. The problems stem from the real effects of climate change, regardless whether you believe it is human-caused or just a cycle of nature.
It will cost trillions of dollars to upgrade the national power grid, which should be acknowledged as President Biden and Congress gear up to address infrastructure investment in roads, bridges, transit, trains, airports, broadband and sewer and water systems. Until now, investment in the national power network, which not so ironically may be the most foundational infrastructure need facing the country, has been notably absent from infrastructure discussions, even though without power most other infrastructure sectors are stuck.
Researchers at Princeton University conducted a study, funded in part by BP and Exxon Mobil, to examine what it would take and the cost to achieve a net-zero carbon target in America by 2050. Researchers came away with a staggering price tag of $2.5 trillion, which would be on top of the $9.4 trillion they say will be spent in normal, business-as-usual investments over the next decade.
The report is slanted toward electrification investments in solar and wind power, including a shift to all-electric vehicles and accelerated development and deployment of huge batteries to store electricity from variable sources. However, the most revealing part of the report deals with transmission of energy in a no or lower carbon economy: “The existing U.S. transmission network will need to grow by 60 percent by 2030 and as much as triple in size by 2050, which equates to doubling the existing transmission twice over in the next 30 years.”
Extreme weather that can vary from region to region is a key driver of some of those investments, which can range from grid weatherization to placing distribution lines underground to reinventing power poles and transformers. Other considerations include improving power forecasting coordination with weather forecasting and the technology and crisis planning to manage stress from sharply increased power demand caused by abnormal extreme weather.
Regrettably, the discussion over major power transmission investments may be sidetracked by continuing debates over power sources. Some Texas political leaders blamed power outages on underperforming green energy sources (and even the Green New Deal, which is just a legislative concept). California political leaders are in the opposite camp of promoting electrification of vehicles, houses and commercial buildings at the expense of fossil fuels. While both states have centered their respective energy planning on coping with hot summers, neither has dug into the deeper question of transmitting energy, regardless of the source, in extreme weather conditions such as Arctic freezes or rampant wildfires that cause huge spikes in demand and damage transmission capability.
The rolling blackouts in two of the nation’s largest states suggest the solution should be national in scope. The Texas power grid is totally in-state, which means it can’t import power to meet spiking demand. California has power-sharing agreements with the Pacific Northwest to buttress its power supply in warmer summer months, but not enough to stave off blackouts in the middle of raging wildfires. Broader power-sharing could maximize existing energy resources and ease the burden and expense of utilities building to meet maximum loads.
The national power grid needs to be smarter and more interactive as homeowners, farms and businesses become energy producers as well as energy users. Decentralized and variable sources of energy also require load balancing by utilities and a more flexible electric grid that can handle two-way flow.
Market forces combined with green energy advocacy will result in more electric vehicles, all-electric buildings and smart homes. This will require an intelligent grid system that can operate across state lines, utility boundaries and political jurisdictions to handle growing loads and achieve energy efficiency, carbon emission reductions and cost savings.
Calls to upgrade the national power grid aren’t new. But the call needed an impetus to gain national attention. Texas and California have provided that painful impetus. Now the challenge will be to overcome political inertia and infighting.
“Power grid experts have called for a massive build-out of transmission lines for decades to ensure that energy supply problems like those suffered by California and Texas could be alleviated by supplanting supplies with electricity from other parts of the country, or even from Canada and Mexico,” according to an article posted on Politico. “That’s an approach the Biden administration is likely to try to take, but they’ll need to come up with a way to driving the billions or trillions of spending needed and figure out how to clear away the bureaucratic problems that have slowed the process for decades.”
The trick for the Biden administration is to find a political sweet spot – and a source of money – to finance power grid investments that improve reliability and expand capacity while at the same time create incentives to shift from carbon to green energy sources and make long overdue investments in the nation’s other aging infrastructure sectors.