Administration Unveils Energy Modernization Plan

Responding to rapid changes in the nation's energy system and the growing need to upgrade aging transmission, storage and distribution (TS&D) infrastructure the Obama Administration has released the nation's first "Quadrennial Energy Review (QER)" detailing federal priorities for modernizing the nation's power lines, pipelines, roads, railways and ports. A major focus of the QER is enhancing the infrastructure needed to combat climate change.

Getting priorities straight

The document is visionary in many respects and captures many of the priorities NRDC believes are needed to decarbonize the economy, including:

  • reducing methane emissions from and increasing the safety of natural gas pipelines
  • promoting and integrating TS&D infrastructure investment plans for electricity reliability, affordability, efficiency, lower carbon generation, and environmental protection
  • improving grid communication through standards and interoperability (critical to renewable integration)
  • improving energy security and climate resilience across all energy distribution platforms
  • integrating North American energy markets (Mexico is an especially intriguing opportunity as it is in the midst of a major electricity sector reform framed by an ambitious climate agenda)
  • reducing emissions from all forms of energy commodity transmission
  • enhanced stakeholder participation in generation and transmission permitting and siting issues, including Native American tribes
  • reducing or eliminating the delay between renewable project development and access to transmission
  • avoiding environmental resource conflicts conflicts early on in project and transmission planning

There but for Politics...

But there is only so much the administration and DOE can do on its own, and many of the QER's priorities carry significant price tags that will require congressional approval. Some recommendations, such as pipeline improvements, will appeal to GOP members of the House and Senate for their ability to wheel natural gas and reduce waste from oil-field gas flares. Democrats will favor some of these as well, in addition to supporting the climate and environmental benefits of both finding and eliminating fugitive methane emissions and seeking ways to transfer and sequester carbon emissions from existing fossil generators. Others issues likely to at least get a look from members of both parties address improving the safety and reliability of the aging gas transmission network. Still others, like grid modernization, already attract some bipartisan support and it is possible that the QER's recommendations - long on assistance to the states and short on federal actions outside of research and development - may be able to find some bipartisan support on the Hill.

From a purely environmental perspective, the QER has a lot to like, but also contains many elements that seem to conflict with a clean energy future. The emphasis on "shared infrastructure" benefitting oil, gas and coal transportation strikes a discordant note amid elements geared at reducing carbon emissions. They are perhaps unavoidable in the "all of the above" approach on energy the administration favors. There is no question that the safety of both oil and coal shipments need to be dramatically improved. But renewable energy-related and emissions reducing improvements should take priority in any climate-facing infrastructure plan.

Still, this QER is overall a substantial policy contribution in that it connects the most important dots in a vision of where the nation needs to go to more sustainably meet our energy needs while ratcheting down GhG emissions in our recovering economy.

''The president is right to make this a top national priority. By focusing on how energy is transmitted, stored and distributed, this report charts a path toward to a clean energy economy supported by a modernized energy grid.

''A smart, 21st century power infrastructure - combined with ever-increasing deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy -- will ensure America's continued economic prosperity and competitiveness while protecting our health and the health of our planet by reducing carbon pollution -- and combating dangerous climate change.'' -NRDC President Rhea Suh