Antiquated U.S. Power Grid Threatens Progress on Renewables, EVs

While the Biden administration and climate activists are pushing for more clean-energy businesses, the economy is struggling with the worse inflation in four decades and soaring gas prices, crippling American families. 

However, progress toward cleaner energy could be derailed without a massive overhaul of America’s aging electric infrastructure. Industry experts say overhauling it would cost over $2 trillion. The network of transformers, substations, and transmission wires was decaying and highlighted by catastrophic failures during severe and increasingly frequent weather events. 

Over the last six years, power outages have more than doubled in numbers versus the previous six years, according to federal data. In the past two years, power systems have failed with Midwest heat waves, a Texas deep freeze, Gulf Coast hurricanes, and West Coast wildfires, causing extensive and sometimes deadly outages. 

As President Biden stated, the aging, failing power infrastructure is one of the biggest obstacles to combating climate change and expanding clean energy. His administration promises to offset or eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 and the entire American economy by 2050. The rapid growth of clean energy would put pressure on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and increase dependence on other forms of energy.

Paying for significant updates to the power grid would likely require rate increases and spark strong opposition from state and local politicians and consumers, who are struggling under already-high utility bills. 

In April, the Biden administration said in a press release it plans to offer $2.5 billion in grants to modernize the grid as part of the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure package. According to the release, the grid modernization is the “linchpin” of Biden’s clean-energy plan.

Disasters have exposed a crumbling power grid

Extreme weather events have exposed weaknesses in the U.S.’s power infrastructure. Fuel-supply shortages and weather events were the primary causes of the sharp spike in U.S. outages. Grid operators for New England, California, New York, the Midwest, and Texas have recently increased efforts to plan better for weather disasters. 

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) relied on historical weather patterns to calculate a 0.15% chance the state would experience blackouts during the highest summer demand season in 2020. The sweltering summer heat and some of the area’s worst wildfires caused transmission equipment and power plants to trigger some of the worst outages in state history.

California’s wildfires disabled transmission systems that could have been used to draw power from other regions. The state’s increasing reliance on solar energy contributed to the problem. Outages spiked as the solar contributions to the grid plummeted after the sunset. 

Energy experts also say responsibility for grid maintenance, inter-regional connections, and upgrades is shared among local and state regulators, seven grid operators, and utility companies. 

A massive list of projects, no one in charge

According to the director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, Ari Peskoe, the system is failing because none of the individual operators have the responsibility or power to maintain the U.S. grid in the national interest. Instead, they prioritize regional interest, including low consumer rates and utility profits.

Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) members oversee transmission infrastructure for the Canadian province of Manitoba and 15 U.S. states. It has been an ongoing battle over how they will share the costs of improvements and transmission expansions. These disputes have blocked regional project progress.

According to a March 2022 report produced by the consulting firm Brattle Group for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity, no one is addressing the problem. The report states, “Essentially, no major interregional transmission projects have been planned and built in the last decade.” The report blamed state and federal policymakers and regional grid operators for what was deemed “insufficient leadership.”