The country’s electrical grid is one of the greatest and most underrated engineering marvels of the modern era. It is also outdated, prone to failure, and at increasing risk of physical and cyber attacks.
Modernizing the electricity grid will not be cheap or easy, but it must be a national priority. The United States is risking the health of its citizens, the future of its communities, and the health of its economy without bold and broad action to improve our electrical infrastructure.
The electrical system—actually three systems that serve the eastern United States, western United States, and Texas—is nothing short of remarkable. The United States Energy Information Administration reports that it depends on “7,300 power plants, nearly 160,000 miles of high voltage power lines and millions of low voltage power lines and distribution transformers, which connect 145 million of customers”.
It’s fascinating to contemplate, yet few Americans spend much time thinking about the how and why of the electricity reaching their homes. They flip a switch and the lights come on. The bill comes and they pay it.
That such a large and complex machine continues to operate with few noticeable disturbances is astounding. But when these outages do occur, rare as they are, they often cost lives as they usually leave customers in extreme weather conditions.
Consider, for example, what happened in Texas when a severe cold front swept through the state in early 2021. Pipelines froze, turbines shut down, 4.5 million homes lost power. electricity and up to 700 people died.
Or remember the North East blackout of 2003 which saw 50 million people without power for two days. It was caused by a high voltage wire that sag from the heat and hit a tree branch outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
In May, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned that the country could experience more frequent power outages this summer, predicting a high risk of outages in the upper Midwest and a region from southern Missouri to Louisiana, and a risk moderate blackouts west of the Mississippi River.
There are many reasons for this, including the effects of climate change, changes in federal and state energy policies, and concerns that supply can no longer keep pace with demand for electricity, especially as Americans are reducing their consumption of fossil fuels.
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But deteriorating equipment – for generation, transmission and distribution – contributes to the problem. A power grid that relies on old technology and hasn’t kept pace with innovation is inefficient and not resilient enough to withstand both growing demand for electricity and more frequent threats.
The grid upgrade could cost up to $2 trillion in total, but even if that sum were available, it would require unprecedented cooperation between power companies, elected officials and independent regulators, among other parties. stakeholders.
Last year, the White House and Congress paid a down payment on network upgrades, including billions for improvements to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The Department of Energy announced a “Building a Better Grid” initiative earlier this year, which includes loan funding for power companies investing in modernization.
One can’t help but notice the increasing number of annual power cuts and the increasing number of extreme weather events and wonder if even this surge, welcome as it is, will come too late to avoid widespread disruptions in the years to come.
Updating, modernizing and protecting the electricity grid will require considerable funding. As with natural disasters, the country will pay upstream, through investments, or downstream, as power outages and disruptions cripple communities, disrupt commerce and harm citizens.
But, more than anything, it must be front and center in the minds of voters and public servants. It must be at the heart of our discussions on energy and natural security.
Most people don’t think about the current until it goes out. But without a concerted effort to upgrade the network — and do it quickly — Americans will have plenty of time to sit in the dark to consider the importance of modernization.