July 2023 was the hottest month on record, both for the United States and the entire planet. What is more, according to climatologists, we’re likely to witness elevated average temperatures for the foreseeable future.
Surprisingly, the three American power grids — the Eastern Interconnect, the Western Interconnect, and Texas’s ERCOT — have held up remarkably well, with virtually no brownouts or blackouts so far (except for catastrophic weather events like floods and tornadoes). Huge investments in wind, solar, and industrial-scale battery farms over the past decade have proven their worth by helping to keep the lights on and the nation’s air conditioners humming. Today, about 25% of power generation nationwide comes from renewable sources, with some states, like Texas, boasting even higher percentages. But the recent and projected growth in renewable energy sources should not make us complacent.
The much talked about “energy transition” is really about the electrification of the American economy. Getting there will require at least a doubling of power generation from today’s level of 4,300 terawatt hours. But without major improvements to the nation’s transmission and distribution networks, this investment simply won’t take place.
The sorry state of America’s power grids has been well documented. Didi Caldwell, president of Global Location Strategies, recently observed that “The North American electrical grid is aging, inefficient, increasingly unreliable and polluting. It is also ill-prepared to support future electric vehicle demands as well as the large number of industrial facilities projected to be built in the next decade and the rapid development of distributed, renewable generation.”
Modernizing the grid won’t come cheap. Estimates of the cost to upgrade America’s power grids to meet anticipated demand 30 years from now range as high as $7 trillion. Yet federal and state regulators approved less than $500 million in grid upgrades last year. The Biden administration’s $2.3 billion grant program to the states for grid improvements, announced last year, doesn’t amount to much.
In short, the U.S. electric grid isn’t prepared for the energy transition. Though it’s sometimes described as a vast, synchronized machine — a network of wires carrying electricity from power plants across the country into our homes and businesses — in practice there is no national grid. Moreover, the three regional grids have few interconnections and therefore share little power. The regional grids are further divided into numerous independent system operators, posing challenges to building long-distance power lines that can move renewable electrons across the country.
The electrification of the economy faces many other obstacles. In recent years, the costs of utility products, including transformers, insulators and poles, have risen at two-and-a-half times the overall inflation rate. Furthermore, a backlash has been building against large-scale wind and solar projects, especially as they move closer to populated areas. And America faces a dire shortage of electrical engineers and electricians, critical players in realizing a successful energy transition. Finally, there are dozens of industries that will be virtually impossible to electrify, such as blast furnaces, cement kilns and petrochemical plants.
The acceleration of coal and nuclear plant closures is also retarding the energy transition as more base-load power is removed from the grid. Maybe we’ll see a nuclear renaissance down the road; but of the nearly $3 trillion being spent by the Biden administration on its clean energy push, only chump change is allocated to nuclear power.
As much of America suffers under a heat dome that may last the rest of the summer, we need to take a hard look at the energy transition and acknowledge that not only will the road be long and expensive but fossil fuels will remain an important energy source in the future, even if we achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions.
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- On August 9, 2023