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.