Major Infrastructure Investment Needed for Grid

Major Infrastructure Investment Needed for Grid

This piece was originally published in the November 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

Senator Heinrich is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources

These days in Washington, there is talk of improving our nation’s infrastructure by fixing bridges and roads and installing fiber optic cables and high-speed broadband internet networks. Often forgotten in these proposals is perhaps our most important piece of infrastructure in serious need of reinvestment and reinvention: our nation’s electrical grid.

As one of the few engineers working on Capitol Hill, and as a senator from a state that is home to incredible clean energy sources and two national labs that are on the front lines of energy research, I know that modernizing our nation’s energy infrastructure is the key to meeting our future energy needs.

It would be wrong to say we have just one electrical grid. Although much of it is interconnected, even across immense geographic distances, its operations are disjointed. Traditionally, many of the lines running from central power plants branched out into smaller distribution networks that delivered all of the energy that homes and businesses used.

Much of our energy infrastructure has not changed since the days when my father worked as a utility lineman. Our current transmission networks were not designed to integrate distributed renewable energy sources, incorporate new energy storage technologies, or allow different utilities and power consumers to work together efficiently.

Through my role on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I’ve introduced legislation to reduce regulatory barriers for new transmission projects and promote renewable energy and energy storage deployment.

Building a network of new regional transmission lines is essential if we want to tap the full potential for clean energy development in Western states like New Mexico. We must work across state and local lines to update our transmission roadmap to send low-cost power from productive wind farms and solar fields to energy markets in urban centers. It will be essential to find ways to promote new transmission lines that are fully transparent and sensitive to community and conservation concerns.

Energy storage is the missing link in integrating renewable energy sources into our grid, building self-sustaining microgrids, and optimizing the use of all of our energy sources. The grid is already becoming much more of a multidirectional system, where consumers are increasingly also producers and electrons are flowing in multiple directions. As battery technologies advance, storage—at the utility scale and in homes, businesses, and electric cars—will shave peak periods, provide valuable supplemental services, and reduce the need to invest in expensive new generating stations and transmission lines.

We must also adapt to modern threats. I support legislation to protect our energy infrastructure from potentially catastrophic cyberattacks. A modern grid with more generation points and widespread backup power will also be more resilient to natural disasters and other emergencies.

Similar to the way the Interstate Highway System greatly improved upon a system of smaller highways and roads, a modernized electrical grid will deliver major advances to our economy. Making the investments necessary to modernize our grid will increase the reliability and security of our energy delivery systems, reduce carbon emissions, and, most importantly, bring down energy costs for consumers.

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