Why the U.S. Urgently Needs to Invest in a Modern Energy System
In a speech commemorating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2009, former U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger recalled how the energy crisis of 1970s awakened the world “to a new challenge that would require both creative thinking and international cooperation.” He explained that as “global demand continues to grow, investment cycles, technologies, and supporting infrastructure will be critical.” As a top U.S. diplomat in the 1970s, Kissinger is credited with promoting energy security as a third pillar of the international order through a trifecta of initiatives to bolster incentives to energy producers to increase their supplies, encourage rational and prudent consumption of existing supplies, and improve development of alternative energy sources. These efforts contributed to the establishment of the IEA in 1974 as a principal institutional mechanism for enhancing global energy cooperation among industrialized nations.
Forty years after the IEA’s founding, the relationship between energy and international cooperation endures, but changes in the energy landscape triggered by a revolution in how we produce, distribute, and consume various forms of energy is affecting the IEA’s fans. The agency interestingly examines the role of sustainable energy options and considers institutional change as often eclipsing conventional supply issues in shaping our energy future. For example, the challenges facing the electric power industry today include the need for diversification of generation, optimal deployment of expensive assets, carbon emissions reduction, and investment in decoupling strategies and demand response. Two key policy imperatives characterize these challenges, notably: the need to adopt policies that combat climate change, and the need for greater energy security due to concerns associated with supply-demand imbalances. Once again, we are at a moment of institutional and industry-wide transformation that calls for strategic investment and partnership to replace, protect, expand, and modernize our energy infrastructure. It is easy to slip into thinking of the nation’s energy landscape as a static challenge. It is not. The boundaries, business models, policies, strategies, and technical solutions have been a function of the incentives and objectives provided by policy.
The U.S. power grid is one of the most advanced energy systems globally, but its growth has been an evolving patchwork of disparate systems, functions, and components. Because of years of inadequate investment, the electric grid is now aging, outmoded, and unreliable to take full advantage of new domestic energy sources and emerging technologies and business models in the sector. In climate, energy, and economic terms, these issues are defined by whether the next wave of energy infrastructure will further the status quo of the path of least resistance and principally continue relying on conventional fossil energy sources or transition to efficient technologies and a clean energy future. In the first-ever Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) of the U.S. energy infrastructure released in April 2015, modernizing the nation’s energy infrastructure, to foster economic competitiveness, create a domestic clean energy economy, improve energy security, and promote environmental integrity, are identified as central policy concerns facing the country in a time of rapid change. President Obama ordered the review when he unveiled his Clean Power Plan in early January 2014.