AMERICAN SOCIETY OF CIVIL ENGINEERS
America relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems, some of which originated in the 1880s. Investment in power transmission has increased since 2005, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions. While demand for electricity has remained level, the availability of energy in the form of electricity, natural gas, and oil will become a greater challenge after 2020 as the population increases. Although about 17,000 miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines and significant oil and gas pipelines are planned over the next five years, permitting and siting issues threaten their completion.
Energy: Conditions & Capacity
The Electric Grid
The electric grid in the United States consists of a system of interconnected power generation, transmission facilities, and distribution facilities, some of which date back to the 1880s. Today, we have an aging and complex patchwork system of power generating plants, power lines, and substations that must operate cohesively to power our homes and businesses. There are thousands of power generating plants and systems spread across the United States and almost 400,000 miles of electric transmission lines. With the addition of new gas-fired and renewable generation, the need to add new transmission lines has become even greater.
Aging equipment has resulted in an increasing number of intermittent power disruptions, as well as vulnerability to cyber attacks. Significant power outages have risen from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011. Many transmission and distribution system outages have been attributed to system operations failures, although weather-related events have been the main cause of major electrical outages in the United States in the years 2007 to 2012. While 2011 had more weather-related events that disrupted power, overall there was a slightly improved performance from the previous years. Reliability issues are also emerging due to the complex process of rotating in new energy sources and “retiring” older infrastructure.
Oil and Gas Distribution
The coal, oil, and gas industry includes facilities such as coal mines and oil and gas wells, processing plants (e.g., refineries), and systems to transfer raw materials from collection through processing plants to consumers. There are nominally 150,000 miles of crude oil and product pipelines and over 1,500,000 miles of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines in the United States, many located underground and crossing multiple states. In general, this energy infrastructure is owned by private industry. Since 2008, a series of oil and gas pipeline failures have led to deaths, injuries, significant property damage, and environmental impacts. Such failures, including those in San Bruno, California, and Marshall, Michigan, have demonstrated a need for greater pipeline management and maintenance programs. New federal safety requirements were enacted in 2011 to address the increase in the number of incidents due to aging infrastructure and maintenance concerns.
In the near term, it is expected that energy systems have adequate capacity to meet national demands. From 2011 through 2020, demand for electricity in all regions is expected to increase 8% or 9% in total, based on population growth and projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The rate of growth in energy use is expected to be stable and relatively low due to moderate population growth, an extended economic recovery, and increased energy efficiency. Supply forecasts show that the United States will add about 108 gigawatts (10% of current capacity) in generating capacity by 2016, mostly through new natural gas-fired and renewables generation as enhanced environmental regulations, old coal-fired facility retirements, and lower natural gas prices take hold.
After 2020, capacity expansion is forecast to be a greater problem, particularly with regard to generation, regardless of the energy resource mix. Excess capacity, known as planning reserve margin, is expected to decline in a majority of regions, and generation supply could dip below resource requirements by 2040 in every area except the Southwest without prudent investments. The adequacy of energy pipelines and related operations is also a growing concern, partially due to capacity constraints in refineries and oil and gas transmission systems.
Congestion at key points in the electric transmission grid has been rising over the last five years, which raises concerns with distribution, reliability and cost of service. Preliminary findings of the 2012 National Electric Congestion Study indicate that critical areas of congestion still exist in the Northeast and in southern California.
This congestion can lead to system-wide failures and unplanned outages. The public has a low tolerance for these outages, even in extreme weather events. Additionally, these outages put public safety at risk and increase costs to consumers and businesses. The average cost of a one-hour power outage is just over $1,000 for a commercial business. Utilities also often pass on “congestion charges” to consumers when transmission lines are overloaded.
New transmission lines are being planned in response to the need for integrating and delivering new energy sources. During the next five years, about 17,000 circuit miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines are planned, which is much larger than the historical average of 6,500 miles.
However, the permitting and siting of these transmission lines often meet with public resistance, which can result in significant project delays or eventual cancellations while driving up costs. Over three times as many low-voltage line projects, which are typically built in more urban areas, were delayed in 2011, compared to high-voltage lines. The result is that while new transmission lines are needed, many are being delayed due to permitting issues.
About the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
“Founded in 1852, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) represents more than 147,000 members of the civil engineering profession worldwide, and is America’s oldest national engineering society. ASCE’s vision is to position engineers as global leaders building a better quality of life…Comprised of Regional Councils, Younger Member Councils, Sections, Branches, Student Chapters and Clubs and International Student Groups, the Society and its volunteers are fully engaged in making this a better world by design.”