view counter

InfrastructureThe old, dirty, creaky U.S. electric grid would cost $5 trillion to replace. Where should infrastructure spending go?

By Joshua D. Rhodes

Published 20 March 2017

The electric grid is an amazing integrated system of machines spanning an entire continent. The National Academy of Engineering has called it one of the greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century. But it is also expensive. By my analysis, the current (depreciated) value of the U.S. electric grid, comprising power plants, wires, transformers and poles, is roughly $1.5 to $2 trillion. To replace it would cost almost $5 trillion. That means the U.S. electric infrastructure, which already contains trillions of dollars of sunk capital, will soon need significant ongoing investment just to keep things the way they are. There is no path toward shoring up or upgrading the U.S. electric grid that does not require investment – even just maintaining what we have will cost hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars over the next decade. The bigger question is: As we continue to replace and rebuild this amazing grid, what technologies should we focus on?

U.S. electrical grid is in need of upgrading // Source: theconversation.com

The electric grid is an amazing integrated system of machines spanning an entire continent. The National Academy of Engineering has called it one of the greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century. But it is also expensive. By my analysis, the current (depreciated) value of the U.S. electric grid, comprising power plants, wires, transformers and poles, is roughly $1.5 to $2 trillion. To replace it would cost almost $5 trillion.

That means the U.S. electric infrastructure, which already contains trillions of dollars of sunk capital, will soon need significant ongoing investment just to keep things the way they are. A power plant built during the rapid expansion of the power sector in the decades after the Second World War is now 40 years old or older, long paid off, and likely needs to be replaced. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers just gave the entire energy infrastructure a barely passing grade of D+.

The current administration has vowed to invest heavily in infrastructure, which raises a number of questions with regard to the electric system: What should the energy grid of the future look like? How do we achieve a low-carbon energy supply? What will it cost?

Infrastructure seems to be an issue that can gather support from both sides of the aisle. But to make good decisions on spending, we need first to understand the value of the existing grid.

Current state of transition
The electric grid is intended to last decades, yet few people realize the entire system must finely balance supply and demand across timescales as brief as a second. Every watt of electric power for lighting homes, operating laptops or running air conditioners is generated at the same time in different locations, mostly by burning fuels that spin magnets in generators. There is essentially no storage of electricity on the grid; instead most energy is stored in fuels – coal, natural gas, nuclear products and water behind dams, waiting for the command to be converted to electricity in real time.