By - Michael Drost

DOE report: U.S. energy grid needs major updates

Energize Weekly, May 6, 2015

The nation’s energy grid is old, too old, and will need some major policy and investment updates if we expect to have a secure energy future in the face of threats like cybersecurity and climate change, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Last month, the DOE released the first part of its Quadrennial Energy Review, a comprehensive report outlying the current threats and risks to U.S. grid security. The 348-page installment lays out the current state of the aging U.S. electrical grid (hint: it’s pretty dire) and what needs to be done to accommodate the emergence of renewables and distributed generation, as well as confront new threats like extreme weather, cybersecurity, and terrorism.

Right off the bat, the report makes clear that U.S. energy infrastructure is among the most advanced in the world, and is massive, with roughly 640,000 miles of transmission lines, 2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines, 414 natural gas storage facilities, 330 ports handling crude oil, and over 140,000 miles of railways transporting crude oil, refined petroleum, liquefied natural gas, and coal. The sheer size of our energy infrastructure makes making any changes to update the grid a vastly complicated and demanding prospect, one with its own unique challenges that could influence the size and composition of the electrical grid for decades.

It is also getting too old for its own good, with the report calling out a “lack of timely investment in refurbishing, replacing, and modernizing components of that infrastructure that are simply old or obsolete.” Over half of the nation’s gas transmission and gathering pipelines were built in the 1950s or 1960s, while the report notes that “in 2008 the Edison Electric Institute estimated that by 2030 the U.S. electric industry would need to make a total infrastructure investment of $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion.”

The lack of constant and routine updates to the system has led to tragic consequences, most recently in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood when a gas main ruptured and exploded; destroying an apartment complex and killing eight people. That accident was reminiscent of a much larger explosion that occurred only four years earlier when a PG&E gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, killing 8 and injuring 58. The San Bruno accident helped spark a national conversation on the risks posed by our aging energy infrastructure, but so far, not much has been done to address it.

The physical risks posed by our aging energy infrastructure are supplemented by technological risks, including the risk of a cyber-attack, as well as environmental risks posed by increasingly severe weather events such as 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. The DOE report recommends large federal investments over ten years to modernize the grid, including helping states identify their biggest vulnerabilities, such as risks posed to power transformers, which the document calls the “most vulnerable components” of the grid.

The report also mentions the necessity to reduce carbon emissions as a necessity for grid security, noting that climate change can have catastrophic impacts on the energy grid, including more severe weather events that can cause massive power outages or rapid increases in demand (such as 2013’s “Polar Vortex” event), as well as rising seas and other forecast changes.

To help prepare the grid for severe weather events, the U.S. DOE announced last month the creation of a partnership with 17 investor-owned, municipal, and cooperative utilities, who will work to improve grid resilience.

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