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An Interstate Highway for Our Nation’s Electricity | Commentary

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, our nation’s roads were a patchwork of local byways and turnpikes that often didn’t connect to one another. Some were well-maintained, while others were impassible at many times of the year. It was difficult to drive between certain cities without adding many hours to the trip — costing the nation billions in fuel costs and productivity. Eisenhower led the effort to modernize our roads and by the time he left office in 1961, construction had begun. This project eventually became our Interstate Highway System, and led to increased mobility and prosperity nationwide.

Today, our nation’s electricity infrastructure has much in common with the roads of the mid-20th century. It’s 450,000 miles of high-voltage lines spread out over several grids and lacks the capacity to move power over great distances as efficiently as is needed. Outages are becoming more common as our population grows, demand rises and severe weather events test the resiliency of the grid.

Though our grid has served us well, we’ve simply outgrown it. It’s time to modernize the grid so we can better provide reliable, efficient and cheaper electricity while incorporating renewable sources to holistically tackle our 21st century energy needs.

We’ve made some progress over the past few years in modernizing the grid, but much more remains to be done. The Department of Energy has succeeded in working with the private sector to develop and implement new technologies that have improved grid efficiency and reliability. This includes the innovation of synchrophasers, which are devices making our grid “smart” — reporting data about the health of the grid 30 times per second. This allows for computers to manage power in real time and reroute it when necessary in the case of a planned or unplanned power outage. Microgrids are yet another example of this innovation, as they are smaller local grids that can connect to a nationwide grid and also operate independently if needed.

We must continue to work on many fronts: updating distribution and transmission systems, creating storage opportunities on small and large scales, and ensuring our grid is able to incorporate all sources of power effectively. By advancing these goals, we have a tremendous opportunity to create American jobs through manufacturing, construction, computer engineering, cybersecurity and more.

Typically, most of us don’t give thought to the grid until something with it goes awry. But it’s a topic we need to keep in mind, as it touches every aspect of our daily lives: We depend on it to care of our families, for health care needs and for our national security. The August 2003 outage in the Northeast left 50 million people without power, all because of a few downed trees. Weather-related outages such as this one can cost the United States $30 billion a year or more in lost wages, spoiled food and damage to infrastructure.

These are just some of the reasons why we’ve launched the Grid Innovation Caucus. We believe we are in a unique position to inform and educate members of Congress and staff about issues related to grid innovation as California and North Carolina are leading the way in the advancement of grid technology. In order to address our outdated grid infrastructure, it is imperative we work with our colleagues in the House and Senate, along with relevant stakeholders and federal and state entities. Establishing a forum for discussion, debate and advocacy is essential as we bring our nation’s electric grid into the 21st century.

As members of the Energy and Commerce Committee and more specifically, the Subcommittee on Energy and Power, our goal is to make sure that any comprehensive energy legislation that the House passes includes the right combination of funding, incentives, and oversight to make sure that we leave a healthy and sustainable grid that will serve us for generations to come.

Reps. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., and Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., are co-chairmen of the Congressional Grid Innovation Caucus.

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