White House calls for modernized U.S. electric power grid in review

tennessee transmission elp

The U.S. power grid, while one of the most advanced energy systems in the world, is still in serious need of investment in modernization.

This is one of the conclusions of the Quadrennial Energy Report, a report ordered by President Barack Obama when he unveiled his Clean Power Plan for cutting power plant pollution in January 9, 2014.

The report analyzes the capabilities of the U.S. energy transmission, storage and distribution infrastructure, which includes everything from fuel pipelines and trains carrying coal to transmission wires and ports handling crude oil shipments.

The electrical component of the nation’s TS&D infrastructure links more than 19,000 individual generators with a capacity of a megawatt or more (sited at over 7,000 operational power plants), with over 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 6.3 million miles of distribution lines, according to the review.

The first piece of the review examines how to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure to promote economic competitiveness, energy security and environmental responsibility, and is focused on energy transmission, storage, and distribution, the networks of pipelines, wires, storage and other facilities that form the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The review explains that much of the energy infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, and a significant portion of the legal, regulatory, and policy development and implementation around such infrastructure occurs at state and local levels.

Simultaneously, the federal government controls and operates infrastructure of its own, including thousands of miles of transmission lines, and strategic oil and product reserves.

Given the complexity of this policy landscape, according to the report, it should be obvious that federal policies to encourage and enable modernization and expansion of the nation’s energy infrastructure must be well coordinated with state, local, tribal and (sometimes) international jurisdictions.

The review finds that the U.S. energy landscape is in a time of transition. Dramatic changes are happening with regard to domestic coal, petroleum and natural gas production; drastically altered outlook for energy imports and exports; large increases in electricity generation from wind and sunlight; and an increased priority on moving rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector.

Furthermore, there is a lack of investment in restoring, replacing and otherwise modernizing infrastructure.

More than a decade ago, a Department of Energy (DOE) report pronounced the U.S. electricity grid “aging, inefficient, congested, and incapable of meeting the future energy needs of the information economy without significant operational changes and substantial public-private capital investment over the next several decades,” according to the report.

While some improvements have been made since then, the grid still needs investment to become more efficient and resilient.

The Edison Electric Institute estimated in 2008 that by 2030 the U.S. electric utility industry needs to make a total infrastructure investment of between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion, of which transmission and distribution investment is expected to account for about $900 billion.

According to the review, threats to the grid — ranging from geomagnetic storms that can knock out crucial transformers; to terrorist attacks on transmission lines and substations; to more flooding, faster sea-level rise, and increasingly powerful storms from global climate change — have been growing even as society’s dependence on the grid has increased.

At the same time, customer expectations and business demands are also changing. Individuals and companies want to control the production and delivery of their electricity, and technology has become available to implement those wishes.

These trends, coupled with flat or declining electricity demand, could dramatically alter current utility business models, and they are already making it more important to appropriately value and use distributed generation, smart grid technologies, and storage.

The oil and gas and transmission and distribution infrastructure have not kept pace with changes in the production, according to the review.

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. natural gas transmission and gathering lines are at least 45 years old, and 35 percent are 55 years old or older.

Renewable energy deployment in the United States is rising. From 2008 to the end of 2013, the amount of electricity generated from wind energy has more than tripled, and the amount from solar has increased by more than tenfold.

Renewable energy systems, including hydropower, wind, biomass, geothermal, and solar power, generated 523 million megawatt-hours of electricity in the United States in 2013.

According to EIA, in the first 6 months of 2014, 26 percent of the 4,396 megawatts of new utility-scale installed generating capacity that came online were solar additions and one-sixth were wind energy.

One important driver of increased renewable energy generation for electricity has been falling costs. Photovoltaic solar modules cost about 1 percent of what they did 35 years ago. The Production Tax Credit has also played a role, as have the Renewable Portfolio Standards adopted by 38 states.

The increase in renewable electricity has changed demands on infrastructure. Some significant renewable resources are located far from population centers, and construction of adequate infrastructure is key to accessing those resources. Another element of infrastructure — energy storage — may also become more important as a means of integrating higher amounts of intermittent renewables into the electric grid.

Abundant natural gas supply and comparatively low prices have also affected the economics of electric power markets.

Additionally, recent environmental regulations at the local, state, regional, and Federal levels have encouraged switching to fuels with lower emissions profiles, including natural gas and renewables. Natural gas demand for power generation grew from 15 Bcf/d in 2005 to 21.4 Bcf/d in 2013.

Power generation from natural gas rose by 85 percent nationally from 2000 to 2013—from 601 terawatt-hours in 2000 to 1,114 terawatt-hours in 2013.

Energy efficiency policies, a less energy intensive economy and supply/demand balance have led to a slowing rate of electricity demand.

The rate of growth in electricity use has declined since 1950, while the rate of growth in gross domestic product has stayed relatively constant. The slower electricity growth rate is a result of several factors, including a decline in energy-intensive industries, increasing energy efficiency, and the slow recovery from the recent recession.

The report also addressed the recent spate of power plant retirements.

Since October 2012, utilities have announced the retirement of five nuclear reactors in California, Wisconsin, Florida, New Jersey, and Vermont; Indian Point in New York is also under consideration for retirement.

U.S. electricity providers are announcing the retirement of a number of coal-generating assets. EIA forecasts 49.4 gigawatts of retirements between 2013 and 2020.

These changes in baseload generation will affect transmission infrastructure needs. Market-related factors driving coal retirements include declining growth in electricity demand, lower natural gas prices, and changing coal prices.

Nuclear power supplied nearly 19 percent of U.S. electricity in 2013 — all of it carbon free — yet only accounts for 10 percent of total installed capacity, with 2014 preliminary data showing a record average 90.9 percent capacity factor for thenation’s 100 nuclear units.

The loss of these plants could lead to a shift in power flows across the transmission system.

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