Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Get While the Getting is Good: Opportunities to rebuild America's energy infrastructure

By Ben KrapelsPublished March 11, 2015

With international and domestic energy markets in turmoil, the coming end of the Obama administration, and the recent successes of using federal agencies to use regulations to get around the legislative process, it is time for a full-scale rebuilding of the American power grid.

By Ben Krapels, 3/11/15

A new age needs to come to the United States power grid. With President Obama's veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, the United States is finally taking action on the Keystone issue, which was something I advocated for last fall. As a result, the Obama administration has shown strong commitment to its own domestic oil and gas production and a lesser involvement in the international fossil fuel markets, due in part to both record low prices and President Obama's desire to add a green chapter to his legacy in his last years in office. Given the uncertainty of the 2016 presidential election, and the recent success of the Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at using regulation to sidestep Congress to create meaningful, fundamental change, this means that all of these advances and the apparent desire of the Obama administration could be enough to start a similar transformation of America's power grid.

The American electricity generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure is rapidly becoming outdated relative to the rest of our technological advancements. The need for better energy prices, sustainability, efficiency, and infrastructure durability means that America's energy infrastructure can and must change in the coming decades to guarantee the uninterrupted advancement of a society that relies completely and inescapably on power. So what exactly is needed to transform the U.S energy generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure into power suitable for the 21st century? 

Other aspects of the energy industry that were deemed too dirty or too simple have been erased by government action that led to the creation of markets for superior alternatives. The Clean Air Act and other environmental legislation in the 80's brought about better business practices on the part of conventional power producers, and through the ban on MTBE's (methyl tert-butyl ether) created an ethanol market, a decision that both removed harmful chemicals from the atmosphere and helped American corn farmers (an example of the good consequences of sound regulation). In the automotive sector, President Obama's regulations requiring fuel economy standards for a carmaker's fleet to average 54.5 miles-per-gallon by Model Year 2025 will lead to an estimated 1.7 trillion dollars in savings at the pump, while reducing U.S oil consumption by 12 billion barrels, leading to economic savings and benefits for the entire nation.. By creating these regulations, the market for cars with superior fuel economy has exploded (light trucks, like the Ford F-150, which leads all auto sales, now, achieve 26 mpg. Audi's new plug-in hybrid Q7 SUV is expected to have somewhere near 40 mpg.) There is no reason why a similar market for innovation in America's energy infrastructure, which supplies a far greater amount of power, cannot have a similar transformation, and much of the groundwork has already been laid. 

Other recent EPA regulations that limit emissions from coal plants help to make renewables more competitive. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) could help generate more Requests for Proposal (RFP's) for the private sector (which has been ready for years) to create renewable generation projects, coupled with the proper transmission and microgrid distribution at the sink, our electrical infrastructure would catch up with the progress we are making in our internet infrastructure. It will take decades to build the projects, but the regulatory groundwork and opportunities for the growth of the renewable sector and the rebuilding of the American power grid can and should start now, while we still have time and momentum on our side.