A new set of leaders today entered the White House. As they consider measures to enhance roads and bridges, they also should focus on America’s electricity infrastructure. By focusing on investment, efficiency, and markets as their policy foundation, the U.S. will have a world-class electricity system that will advance our economy into the 21st century.
Electricity is a marvel, something even physicists don’t fully understand, yet it is the foundation for our entire economy. Think for a moment about how many interactions you’ve had just this morning with electric power – from your alarm clock, to your radio or television, to your hair dryer or shaver, to your computer or smart phone, and on and on.
Moreover, electricity generation and delivery constitute our nation’s largest industry in terms of capital investment. Less flattering, electric generators are the biggest source of harmful pollution.
U.S. electricity infrastructure is old and frayed. More than 70 percent of our grid – the lines and transformers that deliver electricity to our homes and businesses – is at least 25 years old. The average power plant in this country is 34 years old. Luckily, modern technologies are transforming the grid. And what’s more, new players are entering – and bringing innovation into – the once-monopolized and risk-adverse electricity industry. Unfortunately, its regulation is still stuck in the past. Let’s change that, starting at the federal level. Read More
Market forces and technology are increasingly making old, dirty power plants uneconomic, which creates an opportunity for clean energy progress and cleaner air. However, outdated rules and entrenched interests can complicate the path to a healthier energy economy, as evidenced by a new settlement in Ohio.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) recently approved an American Electric Power (AEP) settlement that contains both promising and discouraging components.
The PUCO decision forces AEP to reconsider its ownership of power-generating plants. Realizing old coal-fired units can no longer compete against newer natural-gas and renewable facilities in deregulated markets, AEP suggests it faces two options, one being to ask Ohio legislators to overturn the state’s deregulation law, allowing AEP to return to the less-risky days of guaranteed profits on any of its power plants.
However, a recent study by Ohio State University and Cleveland State University found that the competition enabled by deregulation allowed Ohio customers, businesses, and industries to save $15 billion on electricity over the past four years and is expected to save the same amount by 2020. If the state were to return to a regulated system, Ohioans could miss out on those billions of savings. Read More
Coal-heavy utilities in the Midwest have mustered a new argument to secure subsidies for their uneconomic power plants. They used to suggest the plants were needed to maintain reliability, until regional grid operators declared there was plenty of generation to ensure the lights stayed on. They then attempted to argue the plants provided jobs and taxes to the local communities, until conservative economists highlighted the inefficiency of subsidies.
Now several utility executives, including the chief executive officer of American Electric Power (AEP), are trying to regale regulators with the importance of baseload generation. The argument goes something like this: Since some power plants – largely nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants – have a hard time ramping up and down in response to changing electricity demand, the grid needs those units to operate all the time, to provide a “base” output of power.
Such last-century thinking, however, ignores the phenomenal advances provided by modern sensors, smart meters, and telecommunications. A combination of dynamic power options – like demand response (crediting homes and business for using less electricity when the power grid is stressed), renewable energy, and battery storage, among others – allow the grid to respond more nimbly than ever before. Rather than propping up old, lumbering baseload generators, we should prioritize a more modern, cleaner grid that focuses on flexibility and diversity. Read More
On any given day, half a million Americans lose power for two or more hours. Those blackouts cost our economy billions of dollars. 70 percent of the U.S. grid that delivers electricity to our homes and businesses is at least 25 years old, and comparatively we endure more outages than other developed nations. We suffer some 360 minutes of outages each year, compared with just 16 minutes for Korea, 15 for Germany, and 11 for Japan.
A new book – The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future – offers these and other insights about the challenges of modernizing America’s electric grid – the set of wires and transformers that transmit and deliver power. According to the author, McGill University professor and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, our current system is “worn down, it’s patched up, and every hoped-for improvement is expensive and bureaucratically bemired.”
But change could be on the horizon. With a new president and Congress taking office in January, legislation to address America’s deteriorating infrastructure, like bridges and lead-laden water pipes, will likely be debated. High on their list of priorities should be new policies encouraging private-sector investment and innovation in the electricity sector.
Here are four ideas from Bakke that the new Congress and administration should keep in mind as they consider legislation that will lay the groundwork for America’s energy future. Read More
Ohio policymakers are at a crossroads. They can create jobs, grow the economy, cut pollution, and save customers money by rebuilding the state’s renewable and energy efficiency policies, or they can continue to let Ohio fall behind in the clean energy economy.
A little background: In 2014, the Ohio Legislature placed a two-year freeze on the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards as a result of political pressure from Ohio’s largest power company, FirstEnergy, among others. The standards required electric utilities to generate 12.5 percent of electricity sales from renewable sources, as well as reduce energy consumption 22 percent by 2025 through efficiency programs. Since the freeze, Ohio has lost millions of dollars in energy investment and jobs, and lags behind nearly every other state in percentage of renewable energy generated.
Now that the two years are almost up, it’s time for Ohio to decide how to move forward – if at all – on its clean energy standards. Fortunately, according to a new report from Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy, there are at least three achievable routes to reinstate the renewable and efficiency standards – each of which would provide substantial economic and health benefits to the state at a value of $3 to $5 billion by 2030. Read More
In a long-awaited decision, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) yesterday approved a $600-million electricity rate plan for FirstEnergy.
One read of the decision is, regulators killed the Ohio-based utility giant’s massive bailout and ordered the utility to modernize its grid. If accurate, this would be an incredible victory: Dirty power plants would not be subsidized, FirstEnergy would not be rewarded for its poor business decisions, and the company would invest in measures that increase efficiency and welcome clean-energy resources.
Ah, if the PUCO order were only so clear. On the one hand, it does seem the regulators are giving FirstEnergy $600 million upfront and requiring it to spend those funds on grid-modernization programs the PUCO will approve in the future. Yet, the more realistic read is, Ohio regulators are simply handing FirstEnergy $600 million in hopes the subsidy will allow the utility to improve its balance sheet. Then, FirstEnergy will (hopefully) propose grid-modernization efforts that the PUCO will consider and fund down the line. In other words, the PUCO is providing FirstEnergy a no-strings-attached subsidy.
The decision is unusual and a bit difficult to interpret – even the PUCO chairman admits the approach is “undoubtedly unconventional.” The only certainty is that this issue will not die. Environmental Defense Fund and its allies will continue to press the PUCO and the Ohio Supreme Court to ensure the $600 million goes toward building a cleaner, more modern electric grid. Read More