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The electricity grid in the United States is aging and is already struggling to meet current demand. He faces a future with more people, who drive more electric cars and heat homes with more electric furnaces.
Alice Hill says it’s not even the biggest problem facing the country’s electrical infrastructure.
“Everything we have built, including the power grid, assumed a stable climate,” she says. “It looked like the extremes of the past – the height of the sea, the height of the winds, the heat.”
Hill is an energy and environment expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served on the staff of the National Security Council during the Obama administration, where she led efforts to build climate resilience. She says the extreme weather conditions of the past can no longer safely guide future electricity planning.
“It’s kind of like we’re building the plane while we’re flying because the climate is changing right now and it’s picking up speed as it changes,” Hill said.
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The recently adopted infrastructure package spends billions of dollars updating the energy grid. Hill says utility companies and public planners across the country are already having to adapt. She recalls the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“They thought the maximum would be 12 feet,” she says. “This storm surge reached almost 14 feet. It broke through the barriers at the tip of Manhattan, then the power grid – a substation blew up. The city that never sleeps [was] plunged into darkness. “
Hill noted that Con Edison, the utility company providing power to New York City, responded by upgrading its grid: it buried power lines, introduced artificial intelligence, upgraded the software to detect faults. But she says it’s harder to improve the way humans assess risk.
“What’s going on is some people tend to think, well, this last storm that we just had, it’s going to be the worst, isn’t it?” Hill said. “No, there is a worse storm to come. And then, probably, it will be passed.”
In 2021, the United States experienced power outages for millions of people following historic winter storms in Texas, a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and Hurricane Ida along from the Gulf Coast. Climate change will only make extreme weather events more likely and more intense.
And that has forced utility companies and other entities to ask the question: How can we prepare for something we have never experienced before?
The modern power station
In the town of Edgemere, Maryland, Baltimore Gas and Electric’s Fitzell substation supplies electricity to homes and businesses in the area. The facility is only about a year old and Laura Wright, director of transmission and substation engineering, says it was built with the future in mind.
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She says the four processors on site are sufficient for now. And to counter anticipated demand from population growth and a future reliance on electric cars, she said, the substation was designed for easy upgrading.
“They don’t anticipate needing that extra capacity for a while, but we designed this station to be able to take that transformer out and put in a bigger one,” says Wright.
The slopes were designed to isolate the substation from sea level rise. And if the substation were to experience something like catastrophic flooding or a deadly tornado, there is a plan for that as well.
“If we were to have a transformer failure,” says Wright, “we can bring one of those mobile transformers into the substation, park it in the substation, hook it up in place of that transformer. And we can do it in two to three days. “
The Fitzell substation is a new modern complex. Older sites can be destroyed for weeks.
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What infrastructure legislation actually does
This begs the question: Can the amount of money spent on the electricity grid in the new infrastructure legislation actually make significant changes to the energy system across the country?
“The infrastructure bill, unfortunately, is only scratching the surface,” says Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.
Although White House says $ 65 billion of infrastructure legislation is dedicated to electrical infrastructure, a World Resources Institute Analysis noted that only $ 27 billion would go to the power grid – a figure Cohan also used.
“If you look at the amount available for the power grid, it’s only about $ 27 billion or so, and mostly for research and demonstration projects and a few ways to get started,” he said.
Cohan, who is also the author of the forthcoming book Confronting climatic traffic jams, says federal tax dollars can be significant, but most of the necessary investment will eventually come from the private sector – utility companies and others spending “several hundred billion dollars a decade.” He also says that the infrastructure package “misses some opportunities” to initiate this private sector action through warrants.
“It’s better than nothing, but, you know, with such big challenges that we face, it’s not really up to the challenge,” Cohan said.
Cohan argues that thinking big, and not gradually, can pay off. He believes a full transition from fossil fuels to clean energy by 2035 is realistic and achievable – a goal the Biden administration holds – and could lead to more than just environmental benefits.
“It can also lead to more affordable electricity, more reliable electricity, a power supply that rebounds faster when these extreme events occur,” he said. “So we’re not just doing it to be green or to protect our air and climate, but we can actually have a much better and more reliable energy supply in the future.”
This story is part of a All things Considered series on the state of US infrastructure and related federal legislation. Ayen Bior and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon contributed to its adaptation to the web.