Survey: Energy is changing faster than our power grid can keep up, say our experts.
The United States has a serious problem it’s not dealing with, America’s energy experts want you to know: The power grid that keep our lights on and powers our economy is woefully behind the times, unready for the huge changes already underway in the energy sector.
“Whether it is cyberterrorism, natural disasters or natural gas and electric generation interdependencies, our current power grid is vulnerable,” wrote one utility CEO – a sentiment echoed widely among the four dozen top energy leaders POLITICO surveyed in its inaugural Agenda Survey. Others called the power grid “aging” and “increasingly unreliable,” and complained that modernizing it is “a bipartisan priority” that “is being swept under the rug.”
For The Agenda: Future of Power, POLITICO surveyed 47 energy thinkers from across the spectrum, from the coal and oil industries to green-energy startups. The group included former EPA administrators Christine Todd Whitman and Carol Browner; energy and economic officials for Presidents Bush and Clinton; the environmentalist Bill McKibben and the chairman of Washington Gas. The US Department of Energy even filled out its own survey.
As a group, they clearly foresaw a fight in the offing – more than 50 percent thought Sen. Mitch McConnell would succeed in at least hobbling the signature Clean Power Plan that Obama is rolling out this year – but also a bigger wave that McConnell and his allies can’t stop. Fully 76 percent predicting that carbon regulations would be more stringent 15 years from now. (Though nobody thinks environmentalists will run the table: a decisive 77 percent believed the Keystone XL pipeline would, eventually, be open for business.)
The overall picture our experts drew is of a nation whose power mix is changing but whose infrastructure isn’t keeping pace. Dirty coal plants are shuttering, wind farms are sprouting up, and cheap and plentiful domestic natural gas is on the rise as a source of the electricity that keeps our nation humming.
What this means, though, is that the aging power grid will need to be ready for widely distributed generation – for a world in which electricity flows through the wires not just to consumers but from them. And the grid, as it gets smarter and more networked, but also more widely distributed, will be increasingly vulnerable to security threats. Without prompting, several leaders raised this red flag.
On the policy front, the biggest question now hanging over the entire power industry is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, expected this summer, which will create a new set of carbon-dioxide emissions goals for states – America’s first national carbon policy. Opponents have complained it will create toxic regulations and needlessly cripple legacy fuel industries. But our panel didn’t seem worried that the Clean Power Plan would be quite that disruptive.
The biggest surprise the plan holds in store will be that the rules “will be accomplished relatively easily by the states,” said one; another said “the costs of compliance will likely run lower than expected,” since the plan builds in considerable flexibility on how states can reach their goals. One predicted that the business world will already have accounted for the impact, and says people will be surprised by “the limited degree of movement in the commodities markets.”
Not everyone was so sanguine, though – one predicted that a “number of normally EPA-supportive companies and states… will have significant problems with the final regulations.”
One key takeaway: Don’t expect the plan will survive just the way the White House writes it. Mitch McConnell has already launched a legal fight and a state-by-state campaign to rally governors against the new regulations, and although almost no one thinks he’ll succeed in torpedoing the rules completely, more than half of our respondents did think he would hobble their effects.
Who will win in the long run? A slight majority – 56 percent of our survey – was confident a Republican win in 2016 would lead to the rollback of the EPA rules that are pushing coal out of the power mix. And although fully 51 percent thought climate change would still be debated in America 15 years from now, a slightly larger number, 59 percent, predicted the US would adopt a cap on greenhouse gas emissions by then.
But energy is a long-term proposition, not just a question for the typical campaign cycle. Energy and climate goals tend to be articulated in decades. When the White House talks about its carbon targets, it focuses on 2030. So we asked our experts about 2030 as well: what kind of country will we be living in?
Overall, they envision a country powered by natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy—much the same mix as today, though natural gas is widely expected to overtake coal as the top source of fuel.
What happens to American politics as power sources shift? We might see a “return to regional energy favoritism,” but built around a whole new version of the industry. The “decline in influence of America’s coal industry” will be matched by a shift toward natural-gas states and the renewable-energy lobbies. What does that mean for the parties? There’s “no reason for a shift to low carbon resources to benefit one party over another,” said one, though others saw it as bolstering conservatism. “The heavy hit the Midwest takes will shift those states further to the right politically,” said one; another saw declining coal jobs likely, in those regions, “to push people toward tea party-like rejection of government generally.”
One powerful conundrum we face: Nuclear power won’t be going away – indeed, the single most definitive answer in our entire survey was the prediction by 91 percent of respondents that America would resume building nuclear plants. But the biggest challenge posed by nuclear energy still will not be solved: by a slim majority, 55 to 45 percent, our experts don’t expect America will find a long-term site to store its waste.
The problem nuclear energy represents—somehow navigating current politics while planning for extremely long-term needs—clearly holds across the entire power sector. Or, in the words of one: “Too many of our congressional leaders are more interested in preserving the past than determining the future, and that’s a dangerous game to play with our energy security.”
See the full article at Politico.com