Rewiring America

In spurring a clean-energy revolution, it won't be enough for Barack Obama to penalize carbon-intensive energy producers, or to incentivize and subsidize the development of cleaner technologies. Instead, according to a new report, the President-Elect will have to oversee nothing less than a comprehensive revamp of America's entire energy-distribution infrastructure. Essentially, cleaning up America's energy supply will require rewiring the entire country.

At present, the electricity we use is shunted around via a rickety series of overlapping distribution networks, run by regional planners with little central management. The system is already operating at near-capacity, and it doesn’t take much to tip it over the edge; as New Yorkers learned back in 2003, a single downed power-line can trigger a chain reaction that knocks out the electricity supply for tens of millions of people.

Researchers say that the rush to embrace renewable energy could place further strain on the system. Coal plants may be dirty, but they’re convenient: they provide a steady stream of electricity, and can be constructed close to the urban centers where demand is greatest. Solar and wind facilities, by contrast, provide unpredictable bursts of energy, and have to be built in mostly rural areas where sun and wind resources are most readily available. That means that to make renewable energy a truly viable alternative to coal, we’re going to need a massive national network of high-tech energy “superhighways”, efficient enough to carry energy over vast distances and responsive enough to combine fluctuating energy sources from around the country to provide consumers with a steady supply.

Rewiring America won’t come cheap: it’s been estimated that a national network of high-efficiency power-lines could cost up to $400 billion over the next decade. On the other hand, there are costs associated with our current creaking infrastructure: we currently lose between $80 billion and $188 billion a year thanks to power outages and other transmission problems, and pricing inefficiencies due to poor distribution dramatically increase the cost for consumers.

On the campaign trail, Obama said that he understood the need to overhaul America’s energy infrastructure. Now that he’s been handed the keys to the Oval Office, he needs to make good on that promise, explaining how he'll fund the installation of new power lines - and how he'll overcome the opposition of conservationists and regional interest groups. That won't be an easy task - but if Obama's serious about cleaning up America, it's a challenge he needs to take on.