America’s Aging Energy Infrastructure Needs An Overhaul

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, the 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Consider this outdated thinking: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

(Source: Iwan Baan/Getty Images)

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.

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