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Nov 17, 2017

The Vital National Electric Grid: Upgrading and Repairs Needed, But How Much Is It Going to Cost?

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That electricity remains the mainstay of our lives is quickly realized during a natural disaster.

Suddenly, the lights are gone, computers may or may not be working, either the air conditioner or the heater is out, and food in the refrigerator is at risk of spoiling.

Such disasters are always local, or at worst, regional in their character. But according to one expert, it is the overall national electric grid, through years of use, that is currently at risk.

“We estimate that the entire electricity infrastructure to be roughly more than half way depreciated,” says Joshua Rhodes, “meaning that there is a significant amount of infrastructure that is close to or has reached its estimated working lifetime.”

Rhodes, a research fellow with the Webber Energy Group/Energy Institute at Austin’s University of Texas, adds that the U.S. built “a lot of our current system in the 60s and 70s, and thus it needs to be replaced.”

In fact, notes Rhodes, “the average coal plant, as of 2016, is 43 years old, and the average hydro plant is even older. The average nuclear plant is 35 years old, and so on.”

Rhodes, who has been writing about grid and energy issues for such publications as the Journal of Building Engineers and Applied Energy, notes that the American Association of Civil Engineers earlier this year gave the country’s energy infrastructure a grade of D plus.

But he observes that, despite the seriousness of the problem, it is not an issue that is particularly prominent in the public’s consciousness. A person can see a bridge that appears to be in bad shape and at risk of collapse. Not so with the electric grid.

“As long as the lights come on when we flip the switch, we don’t really think about it,” Rhodes continues.

But if at any time even a part of this mysterious and almost magical grid were to become unstable, the results could be disastrous.

“Cascading failure can result in a blackout, which is the analogue to the bridge collapsing,” says Rhodes, noting the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico in September.

Two months later, some 60 percent of the island’s residents are still without power.

Just as impactful was Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the East coast in the fall of 2012 and left 8.5 million people in 21 states without power for weeks on end.

In his studies, Rhodes has estimated that it would take just south of $5 trillion to entirely replace the country’s current electric grid. “$5 trillion is a value that it would cost to replace everything, power plants, poles, wires.”

“We don’t necessarily need to do that, but that is a good appreciation for how big the system is,” he continues.

Rhodes has also additionally suggested that if the Trump administration and Congress really are prepared to tackle the monumental job of replacing the grid, they might want to consider thinking about either replacing coal-fired plants with gas-fired plants, or going hydrogen.

In an article earlier this year for the idea-sharing website The Conversation, Rhodes acknowledged that the hydrogen route would be expensive. “We’d need to build places to generate and store hydrogen,” he wrote. “On the other hand, it has the potential to be more resilient and sustainable.”

But whether and how soon the federal government will move on any of this remains a troubling question.

Just this week, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, suggested that Hurricane Maria has opened the door to a joint effort between the U.S. and Puerto Rico to rebuild that country’s electric grid, “in a smarter manner.”

She added that that could be done through “microgrids, distributed generation, burying the lines where possible, direct current versus alternative current, or some other manner.”

But despite Murkowski’s plea, legislation addressing larger electric grid issues remains lacking. 

Noting a movement in the administration and Congress earlier this year to tackle the equally large question of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, Rhodes says “there were some indications that some of the money would be spent on building transmission projects to help move power around easier.”

“But I have not heard of much of that recently,” adds Rhodes, “there seems to be other issues pressing Washington right now.”

 

By Garry Boulard

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