How the White House Plans to Modernize Our Energy Infrastructure

With barely more than 20 months to go in Barack Obama’s presidency, it’s become clear that the Administration wants to leave a lasting legacy when it comes to climate change.

However, a big barrier to progress on this front rests with our ability to upgrade our existing energy infrastructure. This has always been an uphill battle, but a couple of recent breakthroughs indicate that Obama is doing anything but running out the clock on his presidency.

The administration recently introduced what they’re calling the Quadrennial Energy Review, or QER. It’s an initiative that would explore the many ways that the US could update its energy grid, diversify our “energy mix,” and encourage the development and deployment of renewable energy sources. The logic goes something like this: we cannot hope to make progress on curbing climate change until we get our energy policy house in order. And that starts with upgrading or, in some cases, outright replacing our existing infrastructure.

The crux of the plan is a call for more than $15 billion in spending. This would be spread across tax credits, grants, and entirely new programs that would update our energy infrastructure, including the electric grid and our network of pipelines. In time, the US may actually join the 21st Century.

But as things stand now, we don’t even make the top 10 when it comes to the quality of our infrastructure:

Top 10 Infrastructure

But it would be a mistake to assume that the QER is a progressive initiative. Here’s the truth: in this, as in many other aspects of American life, we’re still playing catch-up. What the QER does is simply provide a formal framework for appraising and updating our existing infrastructure—something we should have been doing all this time.

It would be another mistake to think that improving our energy infrastructure is just a token project to get people back to work or to create the illusion of progress. Quite simply, it’s an essential next step for ensuring that America remains competitive in the global marketplace. And with the promise of increasingly extreme weather, it’s never been more necessary to be sure that we’re prepared for whatever comes next.

And yet, here in America, we live by the same credo as most college freshman: Why do today what we can put off until tomorrow? Or for another 10 years? Back in 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our energy infrastructure a barely-passing grade of D+. The report also includes a price tag: what they’re calling the “estimated investment needed by 2020.” It currently sits at $3.6 trillion, and will continue to increase with every year we fail to take action.

Nevertheless, the QER—and two accompanying executive orders—are practically comprehensive in laying out a plan to either expand existing programs or create new programs that would make us more resilient to climate change and less dependent on fossil fuels.

Here are five key points:

Curbing methane and black carbon: These are byproducts of natural gas and diesel, respectively. For reasons not fully explained, methane emissions from the development of natural gas aren’t being regulated. As of January 2015, the Obama administration has committed to cutting this type of emission and setting responsible limits going forward. The QER will also compel Congress to fund the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, which was signed into law in 2010.

Compel utilities to lead the discussion on climate change: While I believe leaning heavily on the private sector for action on climate change is an abdication of our government’s responsibilities, it’s pretty clear by now that any kind of forward progress will still require their participation. The QER will create something called the Partnership for Energy Sector Climate Resilience, which will bring 17 utility companies into the fold.

Uplifting rural America: The White House also doubled down on commitments to infrastructure improvements for America’s rural areas. As with most of the QER’s goals, this would make isolated communities less susceptible to climate change-related problems.

Finally modernize ‘the grid’: As far back as 2003, the Department of Energy indicated that the United States’ electrical grid is “aging, inefficient, congested, and incapable of meeting the future energy needs of the information economy without significant operation changes.” A comprehensive update would make the entire system more energy efficient, resilient, and less harmful to the environment.

Incentivize the states: Just as the QER hopes that involving utility companies will help encourage innovation, so too does it hope that letting states lead the way will bring similar breakthroughs. The QER recommends that a grant program be put in place to encourage states to develop and demonstrate “innovative approaches” that “enhance resiliency and reliability.”

As with most of Obama’s efforts these days, the QER and its goals carry the usual disclaimer: “Look out for that pesky GOP.” With Republican congressman vowing to gut the EPA and turning the senate chamber into a sideshow with impromptu snowball fights (I really wish I was joking about that), it’s clear that they take neither climate change, nor their jobs, very seriously. Hopefully the QER will set a strong precedent for two issues that will only continue to grow more important and more entwined: energy policy and climate change.

Image Credit: Kevin Dooley (via Creative Commons license)

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