Much of the U.S. energy system predates the turn of the 21st century. Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. Energy infrastructure is undergoing increased investment to ensure long-term capacity and sustainability; in 2015, 40% of additional power generation came from natural gas and renewable systems. Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.
Near-term, U.S. energy systems are projected to deliver sufficient energy to meet national demands in the near term, as energy consumption fell slightly, from 98 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2014 to 97.7 quadrillion Btu in 2015, and is estimated to grow at a modest rate, averaging 0.4% per year from 2015 through 2040. In general, the capacity and condition of energy systems depend on ownership and geographic region, with privately-owned sources in the best position to invest.
Due to private ownership, national security concerns, and costs of service, there is limited public visibility into infrastructure investment levels and need across electricity, oil and gas, and alternative energy sources. Increased investment in alternative sources of energy for power generation, heating and cooling, transportation, and process industries is needed for a sustainable future, but investment in this area lags, principally due to a lack of federal energy policy.
The U.S. energy sector faces significant challenges as a result of aging infrastructure, including supply security and reliability and resiliency issues in the face of severe weather events, all posing a threat to public safety and the national economy. Between 2003 and 2012, weather-related outages, coupled with aging infrastructure, are estimated to have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion. Some states have enacted “storm hardening” policies to improve reliability during weather events, but these are typically influenced by local politics, rather than engineers’ recommendations. Local solutions, such as distributed generation and resilient microgrids, may offer lower-cost alternatives to major system investments particularly in areas at elevated risk from severe weather or other natural disasters.
Adopt a federal energy policy that carefully assesses needed changes, including alternative energy sources such as renewables and distributed generation, to provide clear direction for meeting current and future demands.
Streamline permitting processes, to facilitate prompt construction of critical new transmission lines and natural gas pipelines. Process streamlining must include steps to consider alternative approaches and ensure prudent and safe routing.
Develop a national “storm hardening” plan that considers investment in T&D, refinery, and generation systems that withstand storms or that enable rapid restoration of energy supply after storm events.
Increase new and rebuilt distribution lines’ minimum design loads for ice, wind, and temperature to improve reliability and public safety and reduce inconveniences associated with power outages.
Promote usage of remote sensing and inspection technologies to lower the cost of energy system monitoring; focus operation and maintenance spending on highest-risk system components.
Implement performance-based regulations that mandate verification of pipeline integrity and increased investment in early corrective action for inadequate pipelines.
Promote usage of accepted engineering standards for all overhead T&D lines, pipelines, and support structures to help ensure safety and reliability.