By Landon Stevens
If the devastating impacts of winter storm Uri in Texas last month showed us anything, it is that there are gaping holes in grid infrastructure that need to be addressed to increase resiliency and keep the lights on in any condition. In Washington, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package just made its way through Congress, and Democrats have already turned their focus to the Biden Administration’s plans to address infrastructure.
It is believed that President Biden will announce an infrastructure package this week; analysts predict the package could top $3 trillion – with some progressive lawmakers advocating up to $10 trillion. “We are so far behind the curve,” President Biden recently commented. “We rank something like 38th in the world in terms of our infrastructure.”
However, recent congressional efforts to address infrastructure problems have seen little success. Last year, House Democrats passed a $1.5 trillion package only to be rebuffed by Republicans who felt the spending was not tailored tightly enough to meaningful infrastructure projects. “This so-called infrastructure bill would siphon billions in funding from actual infrastructure to funnel into climate change policies,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) remarked last summer.
Despite the political wrestling, meaningful infrastructure investments are needed. “It is time to reinvest in America’s infrastructure. Investing in American infrastructure is a prerequisite for delivering job creation, growth and improved living standards for Americans,” concludes a recent infrastructure report from the Business Roundtable. “It is also a catalyst for the connections and creativity that will power the innovation and economy of the future…Investing in infrastructure pays for itself several times over.” The study shows that for every $1 invested in infrastructure delivers roughly $3.70 in additional economic growth over 20 years. The key to producing a successful infrastructure package is targeting spending to areas that actually create jobs and move the economy forward. We cannot afford to wrap a costly political wishlist into a broader infrastructure package. It won’t work.
So what can be done on the energy side of the infrastructure equation to ensure America can remain secure and competitive while managing costs for families and businesses? A recent study released by the Working for Advanced Transmission Technologies (WATT) Coalition, titled “Unlocking the Queue,” quantified the benefits of just three Grid-Enhancing Technologies (GETs): dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control, and topology optimization. These are smaller-scale investments added to existing grid infrastructure that will have huge economic and resilience benefits.
Investments in these technologies would mean $5 billion in annual cost savings, over 300,000 construction jobs and 20,000 long-term operations jobs for the U.S. economy, and a carbon emissions reduction equal to taking 20 million cars off the road – all while upfront investment costs are recouped in under a year.
Big ideas like this, however, require an overhaul of “business as usual” practices. Regulatory changes would need to be made at the federal level with federal investment in GETs, changes to FERC planning and incentive structures, and consideration of these technologies as least-cost solutions.
“This report shows how active management of the grid can deliver more clean power over the existing network, benefiting customers and the environment in the very near term,” said Rob Gramlich, Executive Director of the WATT Coalition. “These technologies are proven, and small adjustments to regulations will lead to widespread benefits. The value to the climate and the economy is too large to leave on the table.”
Implementing solutions like these are just one tool in a larger arsenal to make meaningful impacts on our energy systems. Congress must look past political talking points and instead agree to identify solutions across the board that can positively impact the grid, and the overall economy, for generations to come. The worst we could do is become politically paralyzed. If we fail to take action on improvements now, the country will continue to experience energy, grid, and infrastructure problems like those we saw last month in Texas.