Political Animal


November 12, 2012 9:25 AM How We Could Blow the Energy Boom

By Paul Glastris

Tropical Storm Sandy left hundreds of thousands of people without power for days longer than necessary for a simple, frustrating reason: America’s power grid is old, decrepit, poorly maintained, and vulnerable to everything from storms to cyber-terrorism. What’s worse, if we don’t fix the grid soon, America’s promising “energy boom,” based on vast new supplies of natural gas, could turn out to be a bust.

That’s the message of a major new article in the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly by author and energy industry executive Jeffrey Leonard. As Leonard notes, the average substation transformer in America is forty-two years old—two years older than its expected lifespan—and even without major storms like Sandy or the derecho last summer, half a million Americans lose electricity for at least two hours every single day.

In his forward-thinking new piece, Leonard lays out a workable plan to transform America’s electricity industry that should be at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda. Step one? Fix our electric grid. Step two? Make use of America’s newfound natural gas resources in a way that will increase energy efficiency, augment the use of renewable energy sources, and reduce the number and the duration of power outages we must endure. With these two steps, America could secure decades of clean, reasonably-priced electricity, a comparative advantage that could fuel a revival in manufacturing and many other economic benefits. “The United States is at the cusp of what very well could be the biggest political and economic windfall in a generation,” Leonard writes, but only if we fix the grid first.

Read a sneak preview of “How We Could Blow the Energy Boom” here.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • Hedda Peraz on November 12, 2012 9:41 AM:

    You forget what John Boehner told us last year: "We're Broke!"
    (And any spare change we still have must go to tax cuts for the wealthy. Who most likely own generators. . .)

  • c u n d gulag on November 12, 2012 9:46 AM:

    My understanding is that Republicans also want to improve our energy infrastructure.

    Yes, they're calling for more whaling ships, and for the manufacturing of whale-oil lanterns - which will all be built in China.

  • Varecia on November 12, 2012 10:00 AM:

    "...Step two? Make use of America’s newfound natural gas resources in a way that will increase energy efficiency, augment the use of renewable energy sources, and reduce the number and the duration of power outages we must endure..."

    Just wondering: Do these newfound natural gas resources require fracking? If so, that's where the wheels could come off the wagon.

  • Ron Byers on November 12, 2012 10:04 AM:

    Where are the plans to improve the energy transmission infrastructure? We get a lot of articles saying "we need to fix the grid" but not many telling us exactly what needs to be done and how. Personally I am tired of articles that state the obvious. I want to look at real plans and have real discussions. I want to get it done.

  • golack on November 12, 2012 10:53 AM:

    sounds like the evil Stimulus to me...

    actually, I'm with Ron on this one. The problem of course if that we're dealing with private monopolies, so the regulatory agencies need to really step up....but then people will have to pay higher rates....

    there would also have to be better coordination between the different companies--e.g. grid management...and any given local company may need to pay more for an upgrade that they don't need, but the grid does...so who pays for those costs?

    and lest we forget about grid storage, e.g. flywheels...

    But of course, it's only as strong as it's weakest link--so everyone has to be on board...

  • Anonymous on November 12, 2012 11:23 AM:

    "...with the right regulations we can reduce the adverse environmental consequences..." "Properly deployed, natural gas has the potential..."

    That's pretty much it on fracking in this article. Y'know, properly deployed, the US army can act as a peackeeping force on the globe. It's all about that proper, innit?

    I do appreciate that connecting natural gas peaking plants with wind and solar has the potential to increase renewables deployment. That's a connection that needs to be made and emphasized.

    But I am disappointed that Leonard so easily glosses over fracking, and we generally hear nothing little about the methane that is mot likely escaping from fractures - methane being far more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

  • SecularAnimist on November 12, 2012 11:32 AM:

    Extracting "abundant natural gas" requires hydro-fracking on a very large scale, which is an environmental disaster in itself. Burning that "abundant natural gas" releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By some analyses, total emissions from the entire natural gas fuel cycle are not much less than those from coal.

    We need to stop burning ALL fossil fuels, as soon as possible. At this point we should not be investing in ANY MORE fossil fuel infrastructure. Doing so locks in decades more of GHG emissions that we simply CANNOT AFFORD to emit if we are to have any hope of avoiding catastrophe.

    The USA can easily generate far more electricity from wind and solar energy than we currently use. Concentrating solar thermal power plants on just five percent of the USA's deserts could generate more electricity than the entire country uses. The same is true of the wind energy resources of just four midwestern states. Distributed solar photovoltaic panels installed on all the country's flat, commercial rooftops could generate more electricity than all the nuclear power plants in the country.

    And these are just a fraction of the USA's vast wind and solar energy resources. And then we have geothermal, biomass, hydro, etc. And of course, given that we waste huge amounts of energy, simply deploying all the well-known, common-sense efficiency measures available to us can drastically reduce our electricity consumption -- and can certainly eliminate any need for building more fossil fueled electric plants.

  • SecularAnimist on November 12, 2012 11:45 AM:

    For readers interested in the REAL "energy boom" -- which is not natural gas, but renewable energy and efficiency -- I recommend the site CleanTechnica.com.

    It is a great site for keeping up on developments in solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies, efficiency, electric vehicles, smart grid technologies, etc. -- including technology advances, industry news, regulatory issues, etc.

    For example, Ron Byers asked above for some concrete discussion of "what needs to be done and how" with regard to "fixing the grid". Check this out:

    Is New York State Building The Smartest Grid In America?
    By Silvio Marcacci
    October 31, 2012

    "A series of coordinated efforts by the federal government, state officials, and regional grid operators may soon make New York State’s electrical grid the smartest and cleanest in America."

  • MichMan on November 12, 2012 12:07 PM:

    All of these strategies overlook the fact that natural gas, despite other desirable qualities, is a greenhouse emitter, particularly when fracking is involved. It may be necessary during a transitional phase to do this, but it should be planned in, not glossed over!

  • BillB on November 12, 2012 11:20 PM:

    The basic work needs to be done, but we need to support the cutting edge designs too. Often it is the new invention that moves us forward. Check out my design for an energy-generating sculpture in a New York City park.


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