Excerpt: Reframing America’s Infrastructure by Marc Gravely
Energy | Empowering the Energy System
The Climes, They are a Changin’
In February of 2021, harsh winter weather descended over the United States, plunging normally balmy areas of the South into a deep freeze. According to a report on cnn.com, on Monday, February 15, “More than a third of the continental US record[ed] below-zero temperatures. Snow, icy roads and power outages [began] to paralyze cities across the country, sparking emergency declarations in several states.” 1
Among the hardest-hit states was Texas, where major cities experienced their lowest temperatures in 30 years: Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio all stood at single digits. On the first morning of the cold snap, Texas residents began to experience rolling blackouts as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates a grid controlling about 90 percent of the state’s electricity, struggled to meet “record-breaking electric demand.” That demand soon crushed the grid, leaving roughly 4.3 million residents without any power.
The collapse of the grid was fatal for at least 26 Texas residents between February 11 and February 21, including many who died of carbon monoxide poisoning as they attempted to run their cars for heat. Home fires increased 187 percent as residents burned wood and a variety of other materials to keep warm2. Across the nation, 69 people reportedly died from weather-related injuries. Water for Texas residents ran out as frozen pipes ruptured, disabling 159 of the 254 public water systems in the state. The state capital, Austin, “lost 325 million gallons due to burst pipes.” 3
At the height of the crisis, the Texas Department of Emergency Management distributed as many as 3 million bottles of water in a single day. The risk-modeling firm Karen Clark & Company offered an early estimate of total property damage at $18 billion.
But how could Texas, the Energy State renowned for its vast oil and gas production, have lost its capacity to generate and deliver electricity? According to the Associated Press, Texas “has a generating capacity of about 67,000 megawatts in the winter compared with a peak capacity of about 86,000 megawatts in the summer.”4 The difference reflects the seasonal drop in usage, which generally allows power plants to go offline for maintenance. However, ERCOT et al. apparently had no contingencies in place for an emergency that would cause a spike in usage during the winter months.
As the arctic blast swept across the Lone Star State, natural gas supply lines froze, and ice paralyzed wind turbines. By day three of the crisis, “46,000 megawatts of power were offline statewide — 28,000 from natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants and 18,000 from wind and solar.”
ERCOT would like customers to believe the brutal weather event was unforeseeable and therefore unpreventable, to which Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, answers, “That’s nonsense.” Mr. Hirs told the AP that “Every eight to 10 years we have really bad winters. This is not a surprise.”
Yet, nothing had been done to prepare for the inevitable. Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston tweeted that “Every one of [our sources of power supply] is vulnerable to extreme weather and climate events in different ways. None of them were adequately weatherized or prepared for a full realm of weather and conditions.”5
Weatherizing power sources is common practice in northern climes where prolonged deep freezes are not rare. Minnesota is not immune to rolling blackouts in ultra-severe weather, but for the most part, the North Star State manages to keep the juice flowing.
Another issue facing Texas is that for energy distribution purposes, the state is an island that lacks interregional connections to power systems that could have provided energy during this emergency. Unfortunately, no one foresaw the need to reach beyond state lines for assistance. With adequate planning, the Texas debacle was preventable, but those in charge chose to allocate resources elsewhere, creating a classic example of the old adage that failing to plan is planning to fail.
Out of the Ice and Into The Fire
News of rolling blackouts across Texas conjured up images of California, which has been plagued with power shortages since 2017. Starting that year and continuing into 2018, Pacific Electric & Gas, the state’s largest utility, was implicated in a series of “devastating wildfires,” culminating in “the Camp Fire — the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.”
As reported by cnbc.com, “The Camp Fire destroyed most of the town of Paradise, California, resulting in 85 civilian fatalities and the destruction of more than 18,800 structures.”6 The cause of the Camp Fire was traced to “a malfunction of equipment on a Pacific Gas & Electric Company transmission line.” A “flood of lawsuits” forced PG&E into bankruptcy in January 2019.
PG&E then began to use rolling blackouts as a means of fire prevention, a strategy necessitated by errant planning, according to Michael Shellenberger, energy contributor for forbes.com. Mr. Shellenberger, reporting on a California grid failure in August 2020, blamed “The utility and California’s leaders” who “had over the previous decade diverted billions meant for grid maintenance to renewables.”7
When a severe heatwave hit the state, “Millions of Californians were denied electrical power and thus air conditioning during a heatwave, raising the risk of heatstroke and death, particularly among the elderly and sick.” Shellenberger noted that Governor Newsom’s COVID-19 restrictions had exacerbated the situation, since “The blackouts [came] at a time when people, particularly the elderly, [were] forced to remain indoors….” The bottom line for Shellenberger was that “California had to impose rolling blackouts because it had failed to maintain sufficient reliable power from natural gas and nuclear plants, or pay in advance for enough guaranteed electricity imports from other states.”8
When the California Energy Commission, Independent System Operator and Public Utilities Commission issued a report in October 2020, it split the blame between leadership and the weather. The Los Angeles Times reported that the problem stemmed from “climate-driven extreme heat,” along with inadequate planning as the state phases out fossil fuels.9 The August “heat storm” had delivered “four of its five hottest August days in the last 35 years.” Electricity demand had spiked, prompting rolling blackouts, but with little interruption in service.
“Just under half a million homes and businesses lost power for as little as 15 minutes and as long as 2½ hours on Aug. 14, with another 321,000 utility customers going dark for anywhere from eight to 90 minutes the following evening.” But even The LA Times could not completely exonerate state agencies which had “failed to adequately plan for that type of heat event despite knowing how quickly the world is heating up.” (NASA places the rate of global warming at roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.)10
As their progressive energy policies came under fire, California officials vigorously defended their commitment to renewable sources. As The LA Times reported, “Officials have consistently said that intermittent power sources such as solar panels and wind turbines didn’t cause the rolling blackouts. But gas-burning power plants that can fire up when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing have been shutting down in recent years, and California has largely failed to replace them with cleaner alternatives such as lithium-ion batteries.”
Nevertheless, California remains resolute. The state will continue to phase out fossil fuels with the goal of “60 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent climate-friendly energy by 2045, as required by state law.”11
California is betting heavily on the future, which is laudable, but is no excuse to neglect the present. In its zeal to avert apocalyptic climate catastrophe, California has allowed real and present destruction. Assessing the damage in October 2020, The New York Times provided this estimate: “in three of the past four years, including this one, fires are on track to cause damages in excess of $10 billion.”12 As California struggles to keep its lights on, the state comes off as a parent who won’t buy his sick child’s medicine, because the money has to go into the college fund. As other states struggle to manage reliability while transitioning to renewable energy sources, California serves as a cautionary tale.
There is, however, good news out of California, where one Indian tribe has shown it’s possible to go green and enhance the reliability of service. The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe in Northern California, a federally recognized tribal government, implemented a strategic climate action plan in 2008.
In 2014, President Barack Obama praised the tribe as “a regional leader in strategically planning and implementing both climate resiliency and greenhouse gas reduction measures.”13 Noting how the tribe had “reduced energy consumption by 35 percent and has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2018,” Mr. Obama recognized the tribe as one of 16 “Climate Action Champions” in the United States.
Among its many initiatives, the Tribe had launched its own low-carbon, community microgrid project in 2015. Thus, when wildfires were ravaging neighboring areas, Blue Lake Rancheria never lost power and, in fact, was able to export power to outside communities.
The California and Texas stories illustrate an undeniable fact about energy production and transmission: the infrastructure that supports these processes is vulnerable to extreme weather. It is also certain, even if one does not embrace the various tenets of man-made climate change, that severe weather events will continue to occur. Therefore, energy planning must include weatherizing infrastructure to survive severe conditions.
The Current State of America’s Power Grid
When we refer to the electric power grid, we’re talking about the entire system of production and transmission up to the point of delivery to the consumer. Major sources of energy production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration 2019, include:
- Natural gas — 38.4 percent
- Coal — 23.5 percent
- Nuclear — 19.7 percent
- Renewables — 17.5 percent (hydroelectricity, wind power, solar power, geothermal, biofuel, and other biomass energy sources)
- Petroleum — 0.5 percent
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the transmission and delivery system (T&D) consists of “600,000 miles of backbone transmission lines (240,000 miles of which are considered high-voltage lines or ≥ 230 Kilovolts), and around 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines.”14
Unfortunately, “the majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components over a century old — far past their 50-year life expectancy — and others, including 70 percent of T&D lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans.” As much as 92 percent of interruptions to electric service occur in the T&D system, due to “aging infrastructure, severe weather events, and vandalism.”
The age of the system is one reason ASCE gave American energy infrastructure a grade of C- in the 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. Although the grade is low, ASCE notes that increased investment in energy infrastructure resulted in performance improvements which raised the grade from the disappointing D+ of 2017.
For example, “Annual spending on high voltage transmission lines grew from $15.6 billion in 2012 to $21.9 billion in 2017, while annual spending on distribution systems — the ‘last mile’ of the electricity network — grew 54 percent over the past two decades.” Investment in renewables spurred production from that sector. ASCE points out that “For the first time, renewables … accounted for the largest portion of new generating capacity in 2020. Renewables’ share of the generating capacity is on track to increase significantly between now and 2023.”
ASCE breaks down areas of concern as follows:
Oil and gas — These traditional fossil-fuel sectors “supply 65 percent of the energy we use” and will continue to be vitally important in the conceivable future. Yet the nation’s pipeline system, comprised of “190,000 miles of oil pipelines and 2.4 million miles of gas pipelines,” is showing its age, “as witnessed by increasing failures and leakage events.” The system requires “improved inspection techniques, preservation technologies, and sound decision-making for upgrades and replacements.”
ASCE notes that “critical infrastructure bottlenecks also exist, including the gas delivery constraints to New England and New York and challenges with urban infrastructure upgrades.” Residents of New York City have been shaken, literally, in recent years by gas explosions that destroyed residential buildings. The latest event occurred on February 28, 2021, when according to The New York Times, “A manhole fire and explosion in Manhattan early on Sunday morning damaged cars and storefronts, caused power failures and injured at least three people.”15 That explosion came on the heels of a February 18, 2021 blast “that rocked a three-story Bronx apartment building … injuring six adults and three young children — including a critically injured 3-year-old.”16
These are eerie reminders that after a gas explosion destroyed an East Village restaurant in March 2015, Governor Cuomo called such incidents a “disturbing trend.” Subsequent investigation determined that aging natural gas pipelines owned and managed by Consolidated Edison, many of which were more than 100 years old, were among the most dangerous in the nation.
Funding future needs — There are two major priorities guiding energy policy: meeting increasing demand and transitioning to cleaner sources of fuel. Both of these goals require increased investment, but ASCE warns there is a significant “investment gap.”
While money has been dedicated to renewable production, funds have been lacking for “upgrades and replacements of aging transmission infrastructure, system hardening, and resilience measures that minimize impacts from catastrophic events, improvements to comply with evolving transmission reliability and security compliance standards, and expansion of the transmission system to integrate renewables and natural gas have contributed to the increase in transmission spending.”
A more balanced approach is necessary since it’s useless to generate electricity you cannot deliver. ASCE also takes issue with the Biden administration’s cancelation of the Keystone XL pipeline. The “precedent of rescinding already granted permits,” ASCE argues, “could harm future investment in all energy infrastructure.”
An area of need that is expected to grow exponentially is the charging of electric vehicles. EV sales in the United States have lagged behind other regions, such as the European Union and China, largely because of abundant and relatively inexpensive gasoline here and the lack of charging infrastructure.
In January, President Biden issued an executive order expressing the administration’s goal of replacing federal government vehicles with EVs built in America. This would give a sizeable jolt to the EV industry, given that “As of 2019, the U.S. government had 645,000 vehicles that were driven 4.5 billion miles and consumed 375 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, according to the General Services Administration (GSA). About 35 percent of those vehicles were operated by the U.S. Postal Service, according to GSA.”17
However, that many additional EVs on the road would require a significant increase in electric capacity as well as transmission and distribution infrastructure in the form of strategically placed charging stations.
Resilience and innovation — Power outages are costly. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the cost to the U.S. economy at anywhere from $28 billion to $169 billion annually. Fortunately, utilities are not simply “repairing the grid after a major disaster.” Rather, “more utilities are taking proactive steps … strengthening the grid through resilience measures.”
ASCE points to examples of how utilities learned from Hurricane Harvey, when “wind and catastrophic flooding knocked down or damaged more than 6,200 distribution poles.” Moreover, since Superstorm Sandy caused catastrophic outages across New York and New Jersey, “electric companies have invested more than $285 billion in T&D … partially to harden the energy grid and make it more resilient to future storms.”
Public safety — In addition to economic damage, power outages present a serious threat to public health and safety. Impacted areas include communications, transportation, drinking water and wastewater, and the sales of essential goods, such as groceries. Residents who rely on electricity for medical devices are endangered, and hospitals and emergency medical services may be impaired. Loss of power means food spoilage, as well as the inability to prepare hot meals. It’s no exaggeration to say that without electricity, the nation quickly devolves back to the Stone Age.
In addition, grid vulnerability is a serious national security issue. An enemy who could cripple the grid could bring the most powerful nation on Earth to its knees.
Electromagnetic Pulse: The Existential Nightmare for America’s Power Grid
An electromagnetic pulse is a burst of energy that creates a disturbance potentially damaging to electronic infrastructure. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union discovered that nuclear bomb tests created waves of electromagnetic energy that could cause wide-scale destruction.
For decades, the threat of an EMP attack loomed as part of the “mutually assured destruction” guaranteed in a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. Today, the most feared EMP scenario involves a rocket attack from a rogue state or terrorist organization. It has been hypothesized that a single missile launched from a barge off the coast of the United States could explode a nuclear device above a major American city causing cascading destruction to most of our electric grid.
In a 2020 article entitled, EMP Ignorance Is Bliss, Dr. Peter Vincent Pry describes a scenario reminiscent of the Mad Max films: “High-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) is generated by a nuclear weapon detonated exo-atmospherically, at an altitude of 30-400 kilometers. No blast or fire or radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion in the vacuum of outer space reaches the surface of the Earth, only the HEMP. A single nuclear weapon can generate a HEMP field covering much of North America that would blackout electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures, paralyze unprotected military forces, and blind radar and satellite National Technical Means needed to identify the attacker.”18
This July 2017 assessment from the Congressional EMP Commission is positively chilling: “A long-term outage owing to EMP could disable most critical supply chains, leaving the U.S. population living in conditions similar to centuries past, prior to the advent of electric power. In the 1800s, the U.S. population was less than 60 million, and those people had many skills and assets necessary for survival without today’s infrastructure. An extended blackout today could result in the death of a large fraction of the American people through the effects of societal collapse, disease, and starvation.”
For decades, national security experts have urged hardening the grid against an EMP attack, but little has been done. According to The Secure the Grid Coalition, an ad hoc group of policy, energy, and national security experts, legislators, and industry insiders under the aegis of The Center for Security Policy, inaction by Congress is inexcusable.19
The Congressional EMP Commission met from 2001-2008 to develop “a plan to protect all infrastructures from EMP – a plan that would also mitigate threats from cyber-attack, sabotage, and natural disasters that could be implemented in 3-5 years at a cost of $10-20 billion.” In 2008, the cost “to harden the grid’s critical nodes (i.e., roughly 2,000 large and medium-sized transformers and their associated SCADA systems, etc.)” was estimated at $2 billion. That sum was “modest when compared with the unimaginably high costs associated with trying to remediate after an EMP event,” yet Congress took no action on its own Commission’s plan.
The EMP Commission was revived in Congress from 2017-2018. On March 26, 2019, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses, stating, “An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has the potential to disrupt, degrade, and damage technology and critical infrastructure systems. Human-made or naturally occurring EMPs can affect large geographic areas, disrupting elements critical to the Nation’s security and economic prosperity, and could adversely affect global commerce and stability. The Federal Government must foster sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective approaches to improving the Nation’s resilience to the effects of EMPs.”20
Yet, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, the problem is currently “manageable.” In May 2019, EPRI released a study finding that “relatively simple mitigation measures … could help utilities manage the threat.”21 Entitled High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse and the Bulk Power System—Potential Impacts and Mitigation Strategies, the study relied on “mathematical modeling and lab testing to examine the impact of an EMP on the transmission system and ‘economic’ mitigation measures.”
Claiming to have produced “the most extensive study ever on EMP,” which contains “a treasure trove of good technical insights,” Mike Howard, EPRI’s president and CEO, hoped to “parse the facts from ‘science fiction’ advanced by some doomsday theorists.” Although facts are always welcome in scientific inquiries, one must wonder whether Mr. Howard would have dismissed the possibility of single-digit temperatures in Texas as a doomsday theory.
ASCE Outlines What We Can Do Better
Having given U.S. energy infrastructure a C-, ASCE has several recommendations for steps needed to raise that grade. These include:
- Adopting a federal energy policy with “clear direction for meeting current and future demands” while “factoring in technology change, carbon reduction, renewables and distributed generation, state and market-based factors, and rate affordability.”
- Requiring standards for all overhead transmission and distribution lines, structures, and substations to ensure safety and increase reliability.
- Improving grid and pipeline reliability through more frequent and thorough inspections of “critical assets” with an eye towards “risk mitigation.”
- Developing a “national hardening plan” that protects and enables “rapid restoration of energy systems after natural and/or man-made disasters.”
- Consolidating federal, state, and local environmental reviews and permitting processes to modernize energy infrastructure, including transmission/distribution and pipelines, more quickly and cost-effectively, while still considering environmental and community impacts.
- Designing energy infrastructure “to efficiently deliver power from generation sources to regions with greatest demand requirements.”
America’s energy landscape is changing, and in many ways, for the better. But in this is high-risk, high-reward arena, sound planning, and resource allocation are necessary to ensure a reliable level of service that enables future prosperity.
- Here's how a week of frigid weather and catastrophe unfolded in Texas (link)
- 69 deaths, 44 hours of freezing, $18 billion in damage: This week's winter storm, by the numbers (link)
- Here's how a week of frigid weather and catastrophe unfolded in Texas (link)
- EXPLAINER: Why the power grid failed in Texas and beyond (link)
- Daniel Cohan on Twitter (link)
- Officials: Camp Fire, deadliest in California history, was caused by PG&E electrical transmission lines (link)
- Why California’s Climate Policies Are Causing Electricity Blackouts (link)
- Why California’s Climate Policies Are Causing Electricity Blackouts (link)
- What caused California’s rolling blackouts? Climate change and poor planning (link)
- World of Change: Global Temperatures (link)
- Here's How Local Governments Are Replacing State's Biggest Utilities (link)
- How Much Will the Wildfires Cost? (link)
- FACT SHEET: 16 U.S. Communities Recognized as Climate Action Champions for Leadership on Climate Change (link)
- Infrastructure Report Card: Energy (link)
- 3 Injured in Manhole Fire and Explosion in Manhattan (link)
- Gas explosion rocks NYC building (link)
- Biden plans to replace government fleet with electric vehicles (link)
- EMP ignorance is bliss (link)
- EMP: Technology’s Worst Nightmare (link)
- Executive Order 13865 — Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses (link)
- EMP Study: Threat To U.S. Grid Is Manageable, Electric Sector Says It Would Be Ready (link)