Why the U.S. Urgently Needs to Invest in a Modern Energy System
- Sep 26, 2015 3:05 am GMT
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In a speech commemorating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2009, former U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger recalled how the energy crisis of 1970s awakened the world “to a new challenge that would require both creative thinking and international cooperation.” He explained that as “global demand continues to grow, investment cycles, technologies, and supporting infrastructure will be critical.” As a top U.S. diplomat in the 1970s, Kissinger is credited with promoting energy security as a third pillar of the international order through a trifecta of initiatives to bolster incentives to energy producers to increase their supplies, encourage rational and prudent consumption of existing supplies, and improve development of alternative energy sources. These efforts contributed to the establishment of the IEA in 1974 as a principal institutional mechanism for enhancing global energy cooperation among industrialized nations.
Forty years after the IEA’s founding, the relationship between energy and international cooperation endures, but changes in the energy landscape triggered by a revolution in how we produce, distribute, and consume various forms of energy is affecting the IEA’s fans. The agency interestingly examines the role of sustainable energy options and considers institutional change as often eclipsing conventional supply issues in shaping our energy future. For example, the challenges facing the electric power industry today include the need for diversification of generation, optimal deployment of expensive assets, carbon emissions reduction, and investment in decoupling strategies and demand response. Two key policy imperatives characterize these challenges, notably: the need to adopt policies that combat climate change, and the need for greater energy security due to concerns associated with supply-demand imbalances. Once again, we are at a moment of institutional and industry-wide transformation that calls for strategic investment and partnership to replace, protect, expand, and modernize our energy infrastructure. It is easy to slip into thinking of the nation’s energy landscape as a static challenge. It is not. The boundaries, business models, policies, strategies, and technical solutions have been a function of the incentives and objectives provided by policy.
The U.S. power grid is one of the most advanced energy systems globally, but its growth has been an evolving patchwork of disparate systems, functions, and components. Because of years of inadequate investment, the electric grid is now aging, outmoded, and unreliable to take full advantage of new domestic energy sources and emerging technologies and business models in the sector. In climate, energy, and economic terms, these issues are defined by whether the next wave of energy infrastructure will further the status quo of the path of least resistance and principally continue relying on conventional fossil energy sources or transition to efficient technologies and a clean energy future. In the first-ever Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) of the U.S. energy infrastructure released in April 2015, modernizing the nation’s energy infrastructure, to foster economic competitiveness, create a domestic clean energy economy, improve energy security, and promote environmental integrity, are identified as central policy concerns facing the country in a time of rapid change. President Obama ordered the review when he unveiled his Clean Power Plan in early January 2014.
Here are six key policy recommendations of the QER report.
Improve the capacity of states and localities to identify and respond to potential energy disruptions: The review identifies severe weather events as the major cause of electric grid disturbances. From 2003 to 2012, severe weather caused an estimated 679 widespread power outages in the U.S. costing the economy between $18 billion and $33 billion annually. Low-probability/high-consequence events also caused various types of electric grid disturbances in energy transmission, storage, and distribution infrastructure, including natural gas transmission infrastructure systems such as pipeline and storage leading to safety concerns. These threats and vulnerabilities vary substantially by region with Gulf Coast region being more susceptible to hurricanes, thus requiring regional solutions. The report recommends investing in new technologies like smart meters and automated switching devices to ensure much quicker recovery times from disruptions. It also recommends establishing a multi-year program by the U.S. Department of Energy to support the updating and expansion of state energy assurance plans.
Increase investments in electric grid modernization through expansion of different business models, utility structures, and innovative technologies: The review identifies increased investments in flexible operations and resilience as a more effective and economical solution for serving customer needs by enabling smart growth, in both transmission and distribution systems. Investment in transmission has been on the rise since 2000s, and is expected to grow with improved system reliability and interconnection requirements of distributed generation sources. In 2013, the report explains that investor-owned utilities spent a record high of $16.9 billion on transmission, up from $5.8 billion in 2001. The growing level of transmission investment is needed to replace the aging infrastructure, increase system reliability, and facilitate competitive wholesale power markets. The report recommends adopting new business models, utility structures, and institutions to shape the operation, management, and regulation of the grid as well as optimize and update the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to reflect modern oil markets.
Strengthen regional integration of the North American energy markets: Opportunities for increased integration of markets and policies exist in the North American neighbours: the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. To further energy, economic, and environmental goals, the report recommends developing a common energy market, shared environmental and security goals, and infrastructure that undergirds the three economies. For example, in 2013, energy trade between the U.S. and Canada was approximately $140 billion, while energy trade with Mexico exceeded $65 billion in 2012—a sign of the existing opportunities for integration.
Update and improve quantification of methane emissions from natural gas systems: To enhance the ability of the nation to achieve the targeted environmental goals, the report calls for urgent need to address the direct environmental impacts and vulnerabilities of energy transmission, storage, and distribution infrastructure, more broadly, carbon sequestration infrastructure, long-distance transmission to enable distributed generation and utilization of renewable resources, and smart grid technologies to support energy efficiency. The QER recommends updating greenhouse gas inventory estimates of methane emissions from natural gas systems, increased funding to reduce diesel emissions under the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, and enactment of the proposed Carbon Dioxide Investment and Sequestration Tax Credit, to support carbon capture technology and associated infrastructure.
Improve siting and permitting of energy infrastructure: The QER identifies involvement of multiple federal, state, local and tribal jurisdictions to add the time to siting, permitting, and review process of energy infrastructure projects due to overlapping and sometimes conflicting statutory responsibilities. To enhance credibility of the process, the QER recommends increased meaningful and robust public engagement with local stakeholders to speed up siting decisions, establishment of regional and state partnerships, and enactment and funding of relevant statutory authorities to improve coordination across agencies.
Strengthen shared transport infrastructures: The report calls for strengthening of waterborne, rail, and road transport to move energy commodities. It recommends establishing alternative funding mechanisms, public-private partnerships, and grants for shared energy transport systems.
The energy infrastructure challenges highlighted above can be addressed partly by investing in an assortment of technological innovations. This would repurpose energy sectors to trade energy efficiently in today’s extremely difficult managerial, regulatory, and financial environment. Investing in ‘smart’ energy offers a viable and effective long-term solution that allows the industry to shift its supply sources, build new transmission and storage systems, and increase its energy efficiency goals. Finally, these policy recommendations illustrate a key point: changes associated with modernizing our energy infrastructure and the attendant market solutions may change, interplant or even interfirm efficiency.
This article was first published by CEEP
Photo Credit: U.S. Energy Infrastructure/shutterstock