We just ended a month during which our nation observed the 8th anniversary of the August 2003 Blackout (more than 50 million consumers affected and more than $6 billions in losses), the 6th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (more than 1800 deaths and over $150 billions in economic losses), and the Aug. 1, 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis (killing 13 and disrupting traffic and the local economy for a year) – that is in addition to the hundreds of black-outs, water main breaks and daily traffic gridlocks.

These events have stimulated growing public awareness of the necessity for accelerated programs of replacement, rehabilitation and new investment in the US infrastructure.

Black & Veatch is a big player in infrastructure, ranging across consulting, design and building for projects that include energy plays like electricity and oil and gas, smart grid projects, water and public sector work. Read more about the company’s work to bolster American infrastructure: The Simple Complexity Of Energy Infrastructure.

More of the same is not an option if long-term relevance matters for us to become more competitive globally. The key is to choose a few pivotal areas of growth and to innovate to achieve sustained competitive advantage. This needs a fresh outlook on what we expect our 21st century economy to be, what is the condition and quality of underpinning lifeline infrastructures.

What is needed is not only filling the “potholes” in roads and fixing bridges but also to judiciously retrofit and build 21st century infrastructures pivotal to support our quality of life, power the economy and serve as our fastest model(s) to success.

An example of smarter and more secure lifeline critical infrastructure is a more secure, resilient and smarter grid.

The North American electric power grid is a marvel of engineering that underlies every aspect of our economy and society. It has been hailed by the National Academy of Engineering as the 20th century’s engineering innovation most beneficial to our civilization. However the U.S. electrical grid is being operated with diminished shock absorbers and has been plagued by ever more and ever worse blackouts over the past 25 years. In an average year, outages total 92 minutes per year in the Midwest and 214 minutes in the Northeast. Japan, by contrast, averages only 4 minutes of interrupted service each year. The outage data excludes interruptions caused by extraordinary events such as fires or extreme weather.

The power outages and power quality disturbances cost the U.S. economy over $80 billion annually, and up to $188 billion per year.

I cannot imagine how anyone could believe that in the United States we should learn to “cope” with these increasing blackouts – and that we don’t have the technical know-how, the political will, or the money to bring our power grid up to 21st century standards.

Read more about FERC Order 1000, the proposal on new cost-allocation standards for the building of new transmission power lines: As Plain As Can Be: FERC Order 1000 In Simple Language.

“Smart Grid” is a concept and a range of functionalities: It is designed to be inherently flexible, accommodating a variety of energy production sources and adapting to and incorporating new technologies as they are developed. It allows for charging variable rates for energy, based upon supply and demand at the time. In theory, this will incentivize consumers to shift their heavy uses of electricity (such as for heavy-duty appliances or processes that are less time-sensitive) to times of the day when demand is low (called peak shaving or load leveling).

R&D spending for the electric power sector dropped 74%, from a high in 1993 of US $741 million to $193 million in 2000. R&D represented a meager 0.3% of revenue in the six-year period from 1995 to 2000, before declining even further to 0.17% from 2001 to 2006. Even the hotel industry put more into R&D.

Our first strategy for greater reliability should be to expand and strengthen the transmission backbone (at a total cost of about $82 billion), augmented with highly efficient local microgrids that combine heat, power, and storage systems. In the long run, we need a smart grid with self-healing capabilities (total cost, $17-24 billion annually for 20 years). The costs cover a wide variety of enhancements to bring the power delivery system to the performance levels required for a smart grid.

Investing in the grid would pay for itself, to a great extent. You’d save stupendous outage costs-about $49 billion per year (and get 12 to 18% annual reductions in emissions). Improvement in efficiency would cut energy usage, saving an additional $20.4 billion annually.

The benefit-to-cost ratios are found to range from 2.8 to 6.0. Thus, the smart grid definition used as the basis for the study could have been even wider, and yet benefits of building a smart grid still would exceed costs by a healthy margin. By enhancing efficiency, for example, the smart grid could reduce 2030 overall CO2 emissions from the electric sector by 58 percent, relative to 2005 emissions.

We must modernize the electric power infrastructure, and evolve it into a smarter, stronger, more secure and more resilient system. Electricity is the lynchpin and enabling infrastructure for all knowledge- and innovation-based economies. Our $14 trillion economy-all aspects of it-depends on reliable, disturbance-free access to electricity.

Time is not on our side. We all work under compounded interest … time is critical. Many of us also work under Moore’s law and its resultant innovations… time is critical and making wise strategic choices essential. The time for this leadership is now.

Massoud Amin witnessed the 1977 NYC blackout, the 9/11 tragedies in DC/VA, and the collapse ofthe I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. He works on enabling smarter, more secure and resilient infrastructures. He is leading extensive R&D efforts in smart grids and infrastructure security and is a leading expert on the US electricity grid. Before becoming the Honeywell/H.W. Sweatt Chair in Technological Leadership, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Minnesota, he directed all Infrastructure Security, Grid Operations/Planning, Energy Markets, Risk and Policy Assessment at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto. Prior to 9/11 he led mathematics and information sciences at EPRI, worked on self-repairing energy infrastructures, pioneered R&D in “smart grid” and coined the term in 1998, and led the development of over 24 technologies transferred to industry. He is currently a member of the IEEE and chairs the IEEE Smart Grid newsletter.

Photo Caption: Workers serve pizza to customers outside of Filippi’s Pizza after a massive blackout hit Southern California September 8, 2011 in San Diego, California. Approximateely 1.5 million residents from Southern Orange County to Northern Baja lost power.