New National Geographic Event Offers Opportunity to Reexamine Electric Grid


On October 27th, the National Geographic Channel presents American Blackout, a two-hour programming event that imagines the first two weeks immediately following a catastrophic blackout from a cyber-attack on the United States that takes down the power grid.

This movie should serve as a stark reminder about the importance of our electric grid. At ASCE, we are concerned with what we can control, such as investing and upgrading of our mostly antiquated power grid.

While the film is indeed impactful, the great news is that we—you, me, and our elected officials—can control the reliability and vitality of our nation’s electricity. In the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, ASCE awarded the nation’s Energy sector a D+. Today, the U.S. relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution system, some of which originated in the 1880s. While demand for electricity has remained level, the availability of energy will become a greater challenge as the population increases.

As part of our efforts to better understand the importance of infrastructure, we conducted a series of economic studies we call “Failure to Act” that look at how underinvestment hurts our economy. Unless the investment gap is filled, blackouts and brownouts will increase costs for households and businesses. If we close the gap in investment (at total of $107 Billion) in our power system, we can protect 529,000 lost jobs and $656 billion in lost personal income by 2020.

Solutions for our energy needs are prevalent. We need to be more lenient in the siting of new transmission lines that will relieve congestion and facilitate the transfer of electricity from renewable energy sources as we phase out our backbone of coal fired power plants.  We must reduce the long and costly permitting process that unfairly target overhead power lines; when a transmission line can cost up to ten times as much to permit it than it does to build it, we have a problem. And finally, we need political leadership at all levels to have the courage to invest in our systems, assure reliability, and plan for the overall life-cycle costs of this critical infrastructure. Only by working together can we hope to improve our energy grid and avoid an American Blackout.

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