A modern economy needs a modern electric grid. Unfortunately for us, that is not the grid we have right now. But by taking the proper course of action, we could have it soon.
Spurring investment in a 21st century electric grid – a modern grid that can easily move lots of electric power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed – would bring down costs for consumers. Crucially, it would also drive growth at a critical time for our economy.
Building electric transmission infrastructure will bring good jobs to every state it connects. It will also produce new economic opportunities, by linking areas rich in resources with the cities and factories that need them most. By joining together different regions, a nationally-connected power grid (a “Macro Grid,” ) is better able to handle local disruptions or periods of intense electricity demand — like we just witnessed during California’s recent heatwaves. And, at a time when businesses and consumers want to reduce carbon emissions and have access to clean alternatives, an expanded transmission system can help achieve those goals.
The electric system we could have, aside from being advanced, efficient, clean and reliable, will also be cost effective. In fact, it would be cheaper than the one we have.
Unreliable power is expensive power. According to the Energy Information Administration, 46 percent of the outages in 2019 resulted from transmission failures. Because our outdated grid cannot withstand extreme weather events, industries and businesses need expensive back-up power, that bill is ultimately footed by consumers. Consumers are also paying for expensive wholesale power simply because we lack the necessary transmission to access more affordable power from other regions.
While recent years have seen an uptick in transmission investments, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates an investment gap of $35.4 billion between now and 2039. If we do nothing, consumers will continue paying for an electric grid that is balkanized, antiquated, inefficient, and increasingly unreliable. These costs appear on the monthly power bill, and in widely experienced air pollution and climate change costs.
How do we know modern electric transmission can fix this? Because in regions where companies invested in modernizing the grid, costs went down for consumers, and local economies prospered.
When 11 Midwestern electric utilities came together to build five major transmission lines in the Dakotas and Minnesota, the 800 miles of new transmission resulted in: $4 billion of economic impact in the region, $150 million paid in state and federal taxes, 8,000 jobs at the peak of construction, and a return of $1.93 to electric utility customers for every dollar invested.
Zooming out and looking at the nation’s electric system, a modern grid’s benefits are eye-popping. According to a recent study using weather modeling provided by NOAA, a 21st century Macro Grid would include high-voltage direct current (DC) power lines capable of transporting power efficiently across the country and would save consumers up to $47 billion annually. The principle savings would come from increased access to inexpensive generation of wind and solar power.
Transmission will help us make the most of our resources and provide new business opportunities. The 15 states between the Rockies and the Mississippi River account for 88 percent of the nation’s wind generation potential and 56 percent of solar generation potential. Yet, these regions will make up only 30 percent of the nation’s electricity demand in 2050. Better transmission, therefore, will afford these states the lucrative opportunity to become energy exporters.
While the physics of electricity has not changed in the eight decades since U.S. electrification, our energy system’s demands clearly have. But our current regulatory framework is holding back the development of new sources of power and a modern transmission system that can efficiently move that power from where it is easiest to produce to where it is needed most.
Upgrading America’s transmission system should be a national priority, and it will require leadership at all levels of government, industry, and from stakeholders large and small. We have the technological know-how. Now, we need the political will to bring federal resources to bear on this challenge. Clarifying the federal government’s authority on the siting of new lines would be a first step.
We need a grid, a Macro Grid, that can meet today’s standards: clean power that is both reliable and affordable for consumers and businesses. Allowing our antiquated electric system to languish is not only costing consumers billions in unnecessary expenses – it is also holding back America’s economic future.
Gregory Wetstone is President and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), a national nonprofit that unites finance, policy and technology to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy economy. Joseph Majkut is the Niskanen Center’s director of climate policy.