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The efficient production of electricity from renewable resources is overwhelming the aging transmission grid with more electricity than it can handle.

The 2010s are almost over, and as a decade ends, tradition holds that most look back on the last 10 years through rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia. While many people choose to relive the cultural high points of the last decade, it’s also important to see the many failures in order to learn from them. Of those failures, one of the most baffling examples has to be the political inaction on America’s decrepit infrastructure.

Since 2010, America has lived through two presidencies elected on the promise of infrastructure upgrades, yet as of today, no significant legislation or presidential action has been proposed. For younger Americans, the bipartisan ability to willfully ignore infrastructure spending may seem odd, but to older Americans, the last two presidencies are just another page in a half-century-long book of unfulfilled promises of modernized infrastructure.

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its comprehensive Infrastructure Report Card, giving America a D+. Everything from airports to dams is crumbling, yet within America’s failing grade, there’s one aspect of American infrastructure requiring the most urgent help: the disastrously inefficient electric grid.

According to the same report from the ASCE, most of America’s electric grid was constructed throughout the 1950s and ’60s with an expected lifetime of 50 years. By that estimate, the electric grid has surpassed that due date by about 20 years, and like anything 70 years old, it’s beginning to show its age. In a study conducted by Pew Research, it was reported that between 2000 and 2005, there were roughly 43 major power outages in the United States; however, after 2010, the average has lept to nearly 100, with the report reading, “Data show that the United States experiences more electric outages than any other developed nation.” Not only is the aging power grid experiencing more unexpected power failures, but the unstable and dangerous grid has required more forced blackouts. Just this past October, the Washington Post reported that Pacific Gas & Electric equipment was to blame for the most devastating wildfire in California history, causing the company to shut off power to nearly 2.7 million people out of safety concerns.

Blackouts and wildfires are only one plague of America’s electricity woes. When the country’s energy grid was created, it was reliant on large, one-way, nearly instantaneous power generation where electricity was produced at the instant it was needed then transmitted directly to homes across America. This version of the electric grid was purposefully inefficient, as there were no real energy storage systems; however, this wasn’t a problem because the fuel sources powering this grid were abundant and relatively cheap fossil fuels, especially coal. The advent of more efficient resources like nuclear power and renewable sources like solar and wind energy created a new problem where the transmission infrastructure couldn’t keep in pace with the innovative new power sources. NPR affiliate KQED recently reported on California’s attempts to convert their electric production to green alternatives; however, the efficient production of electricity from these renewable resources when coupled with the state’s existing electricity production is overwhelming the aging transmission grid with more electricity than it can handle. In that article, Keith Casey, vice president of the California ISO, an independent overseer of the state’s electric grid, said he expects the problem of energy curtailment will only worsen as more efficient renewables are introduced to the existing system.

In August 2019, the Government Accountability Office authored a threat assessment of the electric grid where they concluded that the entire grid is becoming more vulnerable, specifically to cyberattacks. When the majority of the U.S. electric grid was constructed, ARPANET, the first iteration of the Internet, wasn’t even a thought, and most computers occupied multiple city blocks worth of space, so it’s understandable that the electric grid wasn’t equipped to handle the vulnerabilities posed by the deluge of “smart” devices onto the system of the past decade.

Another election cycle is already in full swing, and it's clear that green energy has become a central talking point of many campaigns, with candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders proposing to “transform our energy system to 100% renewable energy,” however, within these necessary and ambitious plans needs to be an overhaul of the existing energy infrastructure to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Many experts, including the Department of Energy, argue the most significant way to improve the electric grid is to refocus away from massive, continent-spanning super grids in favor of smaller microgrids within towns and cities.

These microgrids would center around energy storage, where each household would generate renewable energy and contribute excess to the community system. These smaller grids would be more efficient and safer than the existing system while providing an opportunity to finally break the power of the energy monopolies. The Energy Information Administration reports that in Virginia, two companies largely control energy production, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Their necessity was based on the monumental costs associated with building and maintaining large electric grids; however, a shift to locally based microgrids allows for more cooperatives and public utility ownership, giving communities more control over their electricity.

Almost a century ago, electricity in the United States was limited to large cities; however, meaningful action and legislation from visionary leaders like President Roosevelt accomplished the seemingly impossible task of full electrification across the nation. Today, the United States stands in the face of a challenge far more daunting than anything it's encountered before, but if history has any bearing on the present, then the country is more than up to the task of tackling the impossible and revolutionizing its energy infrastructure to counter the threat of climate change.

Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at jones7cr@dukes.jmu.edu.