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Rebuilding the Power Grid

Clean energy depends on new infrastructure.
December 22, 2008

America is facing unprecedented challenges–a collapsing economy, threats to national security, the climate crisis. The common thread running through them all? Our addiction to fossil fuels. So in July, Nobel laureate and former vice president Al Gore issued a challenge: generate 100 percent of our electricity from truly clean sources that do not contribute to global warming, and do it within 10 years.

Meeting this bold challenge will involve work on three technical fronts. One, get the most out of the energy we currently produce. Two, rapidly develop and commercialize the clean energy technologies that we know can work. And three, create a new integrated grid to deliver power from where it is produced to where people live (see “Lifeline for Renewable Power”).

The current U.S. system for transmitting and distributing electricity is in critical need of an upgrade. It is old, balkanized, and too limited in its reach. Grid-related power outages and problems with power quality reportedly cost the nation $80 billion to $188 billion per year. And areas rich in renewable resources–like solar, wind, and geothermal energy–currently have no “highway” to move the power they generate to the markets where it is needed.

To support a dramatic expansion of these clean energy sources, we need to modernize the transmission infrastructure so that electricity generated anywhere in America can power homes and businesses across the nation. A unified national smart grid would form the entire skeleton of a modern electricity system, allowing us to efficiently carry large amounts of electricity over long distances in a network that is integrated, continuously monitored, and resistant to failure. It would allow early-evening winds off the Delaware coast to help power afternoon air conditioning in California. It would use solar power produced in Arizona to support manu­facturing centers in Ohio. Households would have smart meters to help manage their electricity use and might even sell elec­tricity–generated by roof-mounted solar panels or wind turbines, or stored in plug-in vehicles–back to the grid.

Updating our grid in this way would save money, increase the reliability of the power supply, and pave the way for a clean electricity system. And just like the building of the interstate highway system and the railroads before it, a major effort to modernize the grid would create thousands of jobs for American workers.

It is an ambitious goal, but it is achievable. We have the technology, the material, the know-how, and the ingenuity. We have the steel, we have the land, and we have the workforce. What we need now is the political will.

Cathy Zoi is the CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by Al Gore.

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