Powering Through – and Beyond – the Crisis
The US electric grid is saving lives during the pandemic; we need to be investing in it during the recovery.
Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal had it right in a sleeper point she tucked into one of her columns on the coronavirus pandemic back in mid-March:
There are a million warnings out there on a million serious things.
We add one: Everything works – and will continue to work – as long as we have electricity. It’s what keeps the lights on, the oxygen flowing, the information going. Everything is the grid, the grid, the grid.
Like the acts of social distancing and the extraordinary services of health care workers, delivery people, supermarket staff, and so many others, the grid is helping to keep most of us alive. It is keeping us connected. That’s thanks to thousands of workers who are part of a system that we take for granted, even today.
To keep the lights on, people in the electric industry are working around the clock – to staff control centers, to thwart increasing cyberattacks from hostile actors, to keep serving water supply systems without which we could not wash our hands.
This industry is doing its part to ensure that electricity continues to flow to all – especially the poorest households – who need power at homes, in the supermarkets, and in health care facilities.
So far, the system is working. The grid has proven to be resilient in the face of this unprecedented crisis. Thank goodness.
The grid can also be part of how we return to a more resilient economy, by putting Americans back to work and through investments that will keep the nation even better positioned to meet new threats and challenges in the future.
Spending stimulus dollars on the grid is smart.
We know that sound investments made with stimulus dollars on the grid during and after the Great Recession paid off in terms of good-paying jobs in construction, manufacturing, and service industries. Those investments added equipment that helped to modernize the nation’s electricity delivery facilities. There was broad distribution of dollars in both rural and urban areas around the country.
Infrastructure spending – through cash grants, loans and loan guarantees, tax incentives, and other financial instruments that stimulate deeper and faster investment in the grid – helps people get back on their feet in the short term and positions us for better performance once we’re out of the crisis.
We are now acutely aware that supply chains matter in keeping things going during this crisis.
We are entirely dependent on the performance of delivery systems for essential services: food, medical equipment, online purchases, information technology and streaming services, banking systems for stimulus checks, and on and on.
The nation’s grid is literally an essential supply chain: Power produced at distant and local power plants flows to homes and hospitals and grocery stores through a complex network of high-voltage transmission lines and local wires.
That infrastructure is aging. It is undergoing technical challenges (which the industry is meeting so far) that result from such things as weather events, a constant barrage of cyberattacks, different power flows that arise with local installations of solar systems, and greater reliance on increasingly attractive wind and solar generation.
Stimulus spending on the grid – including on not-very-sexy control systems, cyber protection systems, power-flow visualization tools, and basic hardware – will help ready the system for new challenges tomorrow, and do so in ways that will help keep electricity affordable and accessible to everyone.
Many of the utilities that provide electricity service in rural America are eager to help bring their communities out of the broadband deserts they occupy.
Using stimulus dollars to encourage investments in expanding access to broadband, and to modernize these local electric systems and the regional power systems on which they depend, will be important for economic and social recovery.
Broadband deserts exist in poor urban areas too, and stimulus dollars there also are essential to ensure that the recovery addresses hard-hit and disadvantaged populations.
Finally, dollars spent to expand the ability of the nation’s interstate electric highways will open up possibilities for more infrastructure investments in parts of the country.
Wind is plentiful in an enormous swath of the middle of the country and in offshore areas. Onshore wind projects have already taken root over the past decade, but there is much higher potential and great appetite for power from renewable supply.
Many especially windy places are far from population centers, so adding more renewables in those areas cannot happen unless the supply can move to locations where demand can absorb it. Investment in interstate transmission projects can unleash more investment in renewable projects.
Ironically, access to capital is not necessarily the limiting factor in building out the interstate electric transmission highway system. Such projects often fail because they need to pass through many states, and states hold the power to approve the siting of transmission lines.
One potent lesson from the current crisis is that state governors can make bold decisions when the public welfare depends upon it. It is abundantly clear that public health has depended upon state leaders’ actions and their willingness to cooperate with other neighboring states because they can’t meet their own goals without doing so.
This is a teachable moment for states to recognize that the regional power systems on which their people depend today will benefit from bold decisions to support expansion of the nation’s interstate transmission grid.
When Congress and the White House are ready to use stimulus dollars on infrastructure, a smart move would be to prioritize investments in the electric transmission and distribution system. ■