How an Outdated Electrical Grid System Will Slow the Renewable Rollout

Swapping fossil fuels for renewable energy requires resilient and reliable electrical transmission infrastructure.

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Every Monday, in Climate on the Ballot, we pass along a topic to help you integrate climate into your newsroom’s campaign reporting. Consider sharing this newsletter with your colleagues on the politics beat. Vea la versión en español de “El clima en la boleta.”

This Week: Electrical Grids

In the critical shift to renewable energy, an outdated electrical grid system is threatening to slow the transition. Modernizing grids is critical not just to the need to move away from fossil fuels and tackle climate change, but also to withstanding climate impacts and helping people survive extreme weather events. But the current grid system — both in the US and around the world — isn’t up to the job. “Policymakers are all thinking about building new renewable power plants but they haven’t paid the same attention to building grids. It’s like being focused on building the fastest, most beautiful car you possibly can, but then you forget to build the roads for it,” said International Energy Agency director Fatih Birol in October 2023.

In the last couple of years, the US federal government has been taking strides to build those “roads.” In January 2022, the Biden administration launched the Build a Better Grid initiative to build and upgrade transmission lines and harden infrastructure against climate-fueled extreme weather and meet President Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035. As of October 2023, more than $30 billion had been allocated to improving electrical transmission infrastructure via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (2021) and the Inflation Reduction Act (2022). But the work is slow going. Building this infrastructure takes years, and there are already renewable power plants waiting to be hooked up to the grid.

Reporting Ideas

  • Explore the Department of Energy’s National Transmission Needs Study, published in October 2023, to see what’s needed to improve the electrical grid in your region.
  • Investigate how extreme weather caused power outages in your area. Electrical outages cost American businesses up to $150 billion a year, according to Department of Energy estimates published in a Pew Charitable Trusts report. What impact have they had on local businesses?
  • How prepared is your local electrical transmission infrastructure to withstand the climate impacts likeliest to hit your region? From 2000 to 2023, 80% of power outages have been weather-related, according to Climate Central. Who in your area is responsible for improving grid resilience? Who’s responsible for getting power back online after an outage?

Take Inspiration

  • Modernizing the electrical grid is a racial justice issue, reports Adam Mahoney for Capital B. During the February 2021 winter storm that left four-plus million Texans without electricity, Black households were nearly twice as likely as white households to experience a power outage lasting longer than a day.
  • WHYY identified three Pennsylvania-based electrical grid projects up for funding consideration from the US government, including money to relocate a substation that was in a flood-prone area.
  • Based on Climate Central research released in April 2024, Axios reported that Arizona’s electrical grid has had only six power outages between 2000 and 2023, the fewest of any state. During extreme weather events, like heatwaves, a reliable grid saves lives.

Spotlight Piece

People’s belief that they can work together to achieve a specific outcome, called “collective efficacy,” directly impacts whether they’ll get engaged and take collective action. Stands to reason, right? A June 2024 analysis by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication drilled down on the connection between belief and action and found that Americans overall have experienced a slight increased in their belief in “collective efficacy” and that registered Democrats and independents have experienced a large increase.

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