New report from DOE: America's aging energy infrastructure needs an overhaul

both

 

Iwan Baan/Getty Images

No one likes being told “I told you so.” But since DOE released its report last week, I’ve been tempted.

The report warns that the existing American energy infrastructure is highly vulnerable to climate change. That increasing temperatures will stress the U.S. water system and enhance the likelihood of drought. That because conventional power plants require huge volumes of water to operate, lower water availability will mean less reliable power. And that the changing climate will prompt more extreme and frequent storms, increasing energy demand due to extreme temperature changes and threatening our aging and already stressed electric grid with potential blackouts.

In essence, this affirms the many the calls-to-action that EDF and many other groups have been leading for years and the lessons we learned from Superstorm Sandy made painfully real and salient: Our existing energy technologies and policies were designed for a 20th century climate. To weather the extremes of a 21st century climate, we need to a 21st century energy system – one that promotes energy efficiency, enables widespread adoption of homegrown, renewable sources of power and allows people to control their own energy use and reduce their electricity costs.

I have been very encouraged by President Obama’s recent movement on climate change, and the DOE report provides research backing the urgency of his Climate Action Plan. Hopefully, this recent movement will translate into real national momentum, as our national approach to energy truly needs an overhaul.

Consider this outdated thinking:

  • Utility Business Models

If utilities are paid more when customers use more energy, what incentive do they have to invest in energy efficiency programs that urge customers to use less? Utilities that control generation (and profit from energy demand no matter how high it goes) have zero incentive to burn less fossil fuels and encourage renewables. We need to create new business models that reward utilities for providing a platform for clean energy, allowing them to earn at least as much from investing in clean energy as they do from investing in fossil fuels.

  • Smart Grid

The fundamental design of our grid is the same as when Thomas Edison invented it over 100 years ago. For all the talk about the power of America’s tech-economy, our energy system is remarkably low-tech. The DOE report warns that climate change could outpace our best adaptation efforts if we don’t adopt a comprehensive and accelerated approach to grid resiliency. And new, proven technology can help us do just that. Conventional utility business models were built around large-scale, centralized fossil-fuel power plants located far away from electricity customers. Today, a whole suite of new clean energy technologies is enabling more on-site power generation and customer-side participation.

Increasing the amount of electricity sourced locally makes the grid fundamentally more resistant to damage caused by extreme weather events. And unlike conventional fossil fuel-based power generation, clean energy sources don’t contribute to a worsening climate. Utilities can empower their customers to become energy “prosumers” (rather than energy consumers) by incentivizing renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand response, which rewards those who reduce electricity during peak times.

  • Energy-Water Nexus

Finally, the national energy discussion woefully ignores the fundamental connection between energy and water. But in this era of a changing climate, policymakers must also take a comprehensive approach to energy and water management. The energy-water nexus, as policy wonks call it, is a classic example of a vicious cycle. As the climate changes, air and water temperatures will increase, resulting in higher energy demand (due to ramped up use of air conditioners and heaters, among others). But higher temperatures reduce power plant efficiency, which – in addition to the higher electricity demand – will increase power plants’ water demand. With large parts of the country in the midst of historic droughts like the one gripping Texas, now is FINALLY the time to recognize this important relationship and inject it into our energy policy.

It would be wise to take the DOE’s warnings and recommendations to heart before the next major storm, flood or prolonged drought. Investing in innovative clean energy technologies provides a two-fold benefit for our energy system, making it more resilient to climate change and reducing harmful carbon emissions.

Without the right incentives in place to encourage adoption of climate-resilient energy technologies, we could wind up spending trillions to band-aid a broken energy system. Instead we need to build a resilient and reliable electric grid that is fit to withstand more extreme weather events in the future.

This post first appeared on our Energy Exchange blog

You might also enjoy:

Get new posts by email

We'll deliver a daily digest to your inbox.


RSS RSS feed

Comments

If the large oil corporations could see this, and if they had a single IQ point, then they would use their money and other resources to change our energy system for the better. Then they could gain tons of profit for it, since they would own the new electric company. Sadly, no one wants to save our world, and choose to gain short-term money rather than invest on pretty much the best idea ever.
Besides, we would still use fossil fuels, for plastic, beauty products, and more all require the material.

I was recently reading about the past blackouts in the Northeast and I was very surprised that because of a power problem in Cleveland Ohio New York City also blacked out. This is not a new problem and will only get worse. What everyone needs to understand though is that things wont get better with new coal or natural gas generation. I live near a mid sized Solar Array in New Jersey and I know now that in the event of a great storm like Sandy our power was only lost for about an hour because of it. Areas all around us were dark for days if not weeks(some for months). This plant was built using solar cells that today are well under the standard cells being produced today which makes solar power generation even more effective. There are solar cells out there now that are something like 100 times as powerful then what we had 10 years ago. Its time to implement this Nationwide not only to protect ourselves and keep our homeland secure but to create as many "microgrids" as possible so when failures do happen they don't cascade to take out power thousands of miles away. Texas has the right Idea isolating the southern portion of itself from the rest of the nation. At this moment there are 3 zones of power in the USA the eastern interconnect the western interconnect and Texas. I believe for national security we must split the rest of the nations powergrid(by using large solar plants)into interconnections about the size of Texas. Even smaller if it can be managed.
This will also allow us to stop our reliance on energy from the Mideast. The Saudi's are truly not our friends and we will one day face that fact. Its time to get behind company's like Tesla and others like it and stop paying others to supply us. The American spirit is what made this country strong. We worked hard to be self sufficient for over a hundred years just to have other nations that are not truly friends suck our wallets and vaults dry. Think of the money AMERICANS could save by doing this. I call for independence from foreign power by at the most 2025.