Despite more than a quarter of a trillion dollars in investment from 2001 to 2010 the US is still facing an enormous shortfall in electricity infrastructure. That decade was marked by higher spending on reliability in the years that followed the high-profile California blackouts and were interrupted by an equally notable New York City blackout.
“During the past decade, electric energy infrastructure has been improved through an upturn in investment, and the negative economic impacts noted in studies of ten to twenty year ago have been partially mitigated,” says a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers that is the latest in its “Failure to Act” series.
Lest that news be too cheery, ASCE quickly moves to squelch any rosy optimism.
Trends out to 2040 based on new technology, growing population and continued economic growth mean that investment needs to accelerate rather than slow over the coming years to avoid the worst of a distinctly unappealing future of decreased service reliability and rising household energy costs.
Saying that annual costs to the economy will run $20 billion if necessary investment is avoided, the civil engineers expect costs to jump to $33 billion each year between 2020 and 2040.
For those truly looking to depress themselves, even meeting ASCE’s ambitious investment targets is far from assurance of an easy life of wandering around air-conditioned homes with devices charging and lights ablaze. “Even if sufficient investment is made to close the investment gap, the result will not be a perfect network for electricity generation and delivery, but rather one that has dramatically reduced, though not eliminated, power quality and availability interruptions,” the organization said.
Scarily enough, the electricity infrastructure elements of new generating plants, new transmission wires and upgrades to decentralized networks is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to forecasts for required energy investment needs. The Edison Electric Institute, which represents power companies, and regulators represented by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) have backed estimates that put the bill at an essentially incomprehensible $4 trillion plus, with environmental compliance, natural gas infrastructure and run of the mill upgrades blamed.
While utilities have been investing heavily to boost reliability, ASCE points out that investment has been extremely volatile, in part reflecting the volatility of the underlying economy and the impact of low natural gas prices, which have whipsawed electricity markets and limited utility appetite for new capacity they are unsure can produce a return.