America’s Electric Grid Has A $2 Trillion Problem


Getting America to reach the goals of zero-carbon electricity generation by 2035 and net-zero economy by 2050 with a surge in electric vehicle transportation and renewable power installations will require massive investments in outdated power transmission lines and building thousands of miles of new lines. The undertaking is huge, and it’s so huge not only because the price tag for making the U.S. grid capable of handling a net-zero economy is estimated at a couple of trillion dollars. Permitting, regulation and uncertainty over who is and should be in charge of the massive transformation of the power grid are also major hurdles to booming renewable power generation and massive adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

The U.S. power grid is strained as-is, with disruption and outages becoming more frequent in many regions where local grid operators struggle to keep the lights on in case of extreme winter weather or heat. Those events would only become more frequent with climate change, such as the current early heat wave in Texas, which is testing ERCOT’s ability to withstand a surge in power demand.

In recent days, grid operators from a growing number of states started warning about electricity shortages as grids cannot cope with the imbalance between demand and supply heading into summer. California warned last week that it would need to produce more electricity than it is currently producing to avoid blackouts. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), the nonprofit charged with operating the power grid in 15 U.S. states and Manitoba, issued a warning about outages during the summer.

If grids are warning they may not be able to cope with a surge in power demand now, what would they do if renewables were to become the dominant source of electricity generation (provided that the Biden Administration’s goals of a carbon-free grid by 2035 and 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States in 2030 be zero-emission vehicles are met)?

For sure, the grid needs huge amounts of investments, researchers and analysts say.

For example, in a “high electrification” or E+ scenario, with aggressively electrifying buildings and transportation so that 100 percent of cars are electric by 2050, America would need $360 billion invested in transmission through 2030 and $2.4 trillion by 2050, the Princeton University said in a report at the end of 2020.

Yet, it’s not only a matter of money, but many analysts and industry consultants also say. That’s because the U.S. currently lacks a national strategy that clearly defines the roles of policymakers, states, federal agencies, grid operators, and utilities in preparing the transmission system on a national level to handle a surge in renewable power generation, demand from EV charging, and the “electrify everything” drive at home.

“We really don’t have anyone in charge,” Rob Gramlich, president of Washington D.C.-based energy consulting firm, Grid Strategies LLC, told Reuters for a special report on the hurdles the U.S. grid faces.

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“The politics are a freakin’ nightmare,” Alison Silverstein, an independent industry consultant and former senior adviser to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), told Reuters’ Tim McLaughlin.

The regulatory ‘nightmare’ makes investments in the grid more complicated, which could delay much-needed transmission infrastructure updates and thus, push further the timeline of the clean energy goals, analysts say.

“The majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components over a century old — far past their 50-year life expectancy — and others, including 70% of T&D lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans,” the American Society of Civil Engineers said in a report last year.

Expanding the grid capacity by 2-5 times from current levels and transmission investments totaling up to $2.4 trillion presents “multiple technical, economic, and public policy challenges,” Jonathan M. Moch, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and Henry Lee, Director, Environment and Natural Resources Program at The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard Kennedy School, wrote in a policy brief in February 2022.

“First, there is a lack of coordination between regional and national transmission planning. The organizations responsible for regional transmission planning are often legally constrained from prioritizing the reduction of carbon emissions. Furthermore, construction of new transmission requires an extensive siting and permitting process that can stretch for over a decade and may put the goal of a carbon-free electric grid by 2035 out of reach,” Moch and Lee wrote.

According to consultants Brattle Group, interregional planning processes are ineffective. In a presentation prepared for the ‘Building a Better Grid Initiative’ of the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity, Brattle said in March that “essentially no major interregional transmission projects have been planned and built in the last decade.”

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