The Obama administration released a report April 21 that calls for billions in funding to move the nation’s aging energy infrastructure into the 21st century.
The advent of more solar, wind and other renewables – along with the nation’s increased domestic oil and natural gas production – signals a sea change in how power is generated, transmitted, stored and consumed, the administration said in its report.
“The United States has the most advanced energy systems in the world, supplying the reliable, affordable and increasingly clean power and fuels that underpin every facet of our nation’s economy,” the White House said, according to article in The Hill. “But our energy landscape is changing dramatically. Solar electricity generation has increased 20-fold since 2008, and electricity generation from wind energy has more than tripled. During that period, the United States has also become the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas combined.”
To make these grid upgrades, lawmakers would need to approve as much as $3.5 billion over the next decade to replace natural gas lines and improve maintenance procedures. It would take another $4 billion to both modernize the electrical grid and improve its “resilience, reliability, safety and security,” the administration said.
The administration said that it will look for ways to work with Congress on the plans outlined in the report, of which many items were included in Obama’s 2016 budget request, The Hill reported.
IBEW in the Mix
The IBEW has been at the forefront of some of the world’s largest solar projects, including the 392-megawatt Ivanpah plants in California’s Mojave Desert, built by San Bernardino Local 477 members. Further west, electricians from San Luis Obispo are building the 500-megawatt Topaz projects.
The Electrical Worker reported in March 2014 about a resurgence in transmission construction, with about a dozen billion-dollar projects on the horizon. International President Edwin D. Hill said that the construction boom is both an opportunity and a challenge for the IBEW.
“It's tempting to think these are the best of times: we have all the work we can handle and full employment in the outside branch, a claim that virtually no other trade can make,” Hill said. “But that is not the whole picture. If we want to win the best part of this work, if we want to make sure we have the manpower to do it, we have to do more training and organizing than we've ever done before.”
The union estimates that by 2024, more than 76,000 members of U.S. local unions specializing in inside construction will be eligible to retire.
IBEW Construction and Maintenance Department Director Jim Ross says what’s needed is an “all-of-the-above” strategy, where the union ramps up its organizing, training and business development efforts preparing the qualified, next-generation workforce that can make the kinds of grid updates the administration is seeking.
“Right now, we have half as many apprentices as what are needed,” said Ross, adding that the IBEW is working with the National Electrical Contractors Association to address the needs of the construction sector to better understand how to move forward in the years to come.
A Balanced Approach
At the same time, IBEW leaders have called for caution and a balanced policy toward phasing out older technologies. As the Environmental Protection Agency tightens its regulations on carbon emissions, the agency said last winter that almost 50 coal plants would close, in addition to the 60 to 70 plants that will likely be shuttered due to recent regulations cutting mercury emissions.
Almost 50,000 jobs would be lost at those plants and nearly twice that number in surrounding communities. Together, the plants represent more than 40 percent of the nation's coal power capacity, around 125 gigawatts.
The April 21 report is the first in what the energy department said will be a “quadrennial review,” which the agency plans to produce every four years, The Hill reports.
“The United States’ energy system is going through dramatic changes,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, The Washington Post reported. “This places a high premium on investing wisely in the energy infrastructure we need to move energy supplies to energy consumers.”