Electric Forecast Calls for Increasing Blackouts
Pacific Standard’s Lisa Margonelli reports the US power grid is failing:
Since the early 1990s, according to data gathered by Massoud Amin, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, the number of power outages affecting more than 50,000 people a year has more than doubled, and blackouts now drain between $80 billion and $188 billion from the U.S. economy every year. The power grid is slipping backwards to a time when infrastructure was unreliable, and more and more people are talking about going “off the grid” with solar, batteries, and generators as a result. Will this doom the greater grid, and by extension the greater good?
It’s not easy to keep 450,000 miles of high voltage lines up and humming. But the situation has gotten worse over the years because the U.S. has increased the load on its lines while investing less in the system. By Amin’s reckoning, since 1995 the power industry has taken more from its infrastructure than it’s invested; research-and-development spending in the power sector has fallen to just 0.17 percent of revenue. In effect, the power industry has behaved like a low-tech industry—and so it’s becoming one.
Across the power and wonkish sectors, though, there’s a fair amount of agreement that the U.S. needs to make massive investments in the backbone of the grid, as well as in a self-healing grid that can better handle outages (and hackers), and in information technology to make the grid “smart.” Amin estimates this will cost $17 billion to $24 billion over the next 20 years, but will save perhaps $49 billion in outage costs per year and increase energy efficiency to save another $20 billion a year. In other words, as a nation the U.S. would almost make money on the spending.
But in the political climate of the last decade, Americans have not gotten their act together. “We have wasted 10 years arguing about the role of the public and private sectors,” says Amin, “and our competitors have moved ahead of us.” He believes we need a leader who, like Kennedy, can pitch a big investment as a “moonshot,” but laments that “we’ve got gridlock on policy and uncertainty with investment.”
Here’s the takeaway:
Two scary things stand out about America’s failure to shore up its grid over the last 15 years. The first is that the grid’s frailties are getting worse as our weather is getting weirder. The second is that the U.S.’s inability to sort out the right mix of public and private investment and get on with the process of building the grid we need reflects that we no longer quite believe in the common good. It’s not just a power failure, it’s also an optimism failure.
The US used to pride itself as being the first in technology. The first to imagine, solve and create the seemingly impossible. The country that led in research and design and expanding the nation’s capabilities. A country where rich, poor and everyone in between believed they had a stake in the nation’s success: building it; creating new businesses as opportunities arose; expanding opportunities – with federal and state assistance – for everyone who had vision and determination; and in pulling their equitable (affordable) share of the load via taxes.
The current debate over taxes reflects, as Lisa Margonelli writes, that we no longer quite believe in the common good. For the last 20 years or so, the argument has been what am I getting and why should I have to pay for the common good. Perhaps those of us who still take pride in the US need to be asking, if not me…and you, then who?