U.S. electrical system is inefficient and vulnerable to natural and
man-made threats—from severe weather and solar storms to cyber and
electromagnetic attacks. To stay competitive in the 21st century, the
U.S. should upgrade its system before it’s too late.
is commonly known as “the grid”—consisting mostly of aboveground
transmission wires—is actually a patchwork of three regional networks
that share few interconnections. Periods of high demand, such as a
prolonged heat wave, can trigger regional imbalances in electricity
supply and demand, leaving consumers to contend with price spikes and
blackouts or brownouts. Insufficient transmission capacity also means
that during periods of low local demand, surplus electricity is wasted
rather than sold to other regions.
The U.S. grid relies on alternating-current technology,
a legacy of its 19th-century creation. But a direct-current system
would be far superior. Thanks to technological breakthroughs,
direct-current technology can now transmit electricity over longer
distances with less power loss than existing alternating-current
Climate Institute has proposed constructing a new overlay network that
balances the generation and consumption of electrical power. The North
American Supergrid is a concept for a multinodal, high-voltage
direct-current transmission network that would extend across the lower
48 states, eventually linking with Canada and Mexico. The new grid
would work as a resilient backbone to the existing electrical grid.
Built largely underground alongside highways or railway rights of way,
it would also be less vulnerable to attack.
creating a level, nationwide market, the supergrid would allow energy
generators throughout the country to compete directly. Because
transmission distance would no longer be a constraint, the grid would
promote the easy transfer and trade of energy—from renewable and
traditional sources—between power-abundant and power-hungry regions.
The increased transmission capacity would turn America’s enormous size
into an advantage. It would permit, for example, the transmission of
inexpensive energy produced by Mojave Desert solar farms or Great
Plains wind farms to East Coast urban centers, supplanting more
expensive power derived from fossil fuels. A 2016 study from the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research
Laboratory estimated that a similar supergrid could achieve roughly an 80% reduction in power-sector carbon emissions, relative to 1990 levels.
private investment could reduce costs for consumers and taxpayers. The
projected cost of as much $500 billion over 30 years to construct the
North American Supergrid would be outweighed by eventual savings to
U.S. electricity consumers, according to the NOAA study. And
construction of the new grid would create between 650,000 and 930,000
jobs yearly across the entire energy sector over the estimated three
decades needed to build and maintain its necessary infrastructure,
according to a 2017 Climate Institute study. Many of these jobs would come to economically depressed rural areas.
nations are embracing advanced direct current transmission. China is
moving aggressively to build nationwide high-voltage direct-current
lines, investing $88 billion between 2009 and 2020. As a part of its
energy-transition strategy, the European Union plans to invest some $1
billion toward 17 new supergrid projects on the Continent.
Trump administration can propel the U.S. into the supergrid era by
expanding upon the president’s infrastructure permitting executive
order to cut still more red tape. It should push Congress to streamline
the grid-permitting process to promote far-reaching infrastructure
proposals. The White House also should direct the Energy Department and
other executive agencies to develop plans for interregional
transmission, then work with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
to implement such plans. Congress should allocate federal funds to
study the future of U.S. electricity transmission.
North American Supergrid could transform the country, much like
creation of the interstate highway system did in the 1960s and ’70s. In
contrast to the localized economic payoffs received from new roads and
bridges, it would benefit the entire U.S. economy and produce
significant environmental and security improvements. Constructing it
will require leadership from the highest levels. It would be fitting if
the real-estate developer president paved the way for the U.S. to enter
the supergrid era.
Bayless is a former CEO of Tucson Electric Power. Mr. Petri, a
Republican, is a former U.S. representative from Wisconsin. They are
board members of the Climate Institute.
This story was first published in the Wall Street Journal on June 4, 2018