Keeping the Lights On as the Government Shuts Down

Can the country think critically about energy infrastructure amid congressional chaos?

Murad Sezer/Reuters

Congress is pretty busy these days with all of the not-governing it’s doing. Autumn on the Hill is already looking busy with expected battles over the budget, the debt ceiling, and possibly immigration, but a few legislators and energy experts are pushing to add another topic to the already-full legislative agenda: rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Especially in the energy sector, this group argued at an Atlantic forum on Monday, aging equipment, environmental concerns, and security threats are jeopardizing the country’s power — literally and figuratively.

To understand what’s at stake, it’s helpful to define a few terms, and there’s no place better to start than “infrastructure.” The word might seem highly abstract, but infrastructure is actually really tangible. “You drive to work, but are you thinking about infrastructure?” asked Janet Kavinoky, an executive in the transportation group at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “You turn on the tap in your house, but are you thinking about infrastructure? You flip on the lights, but are you thinking about what makes it possible to do that?”

In other words, infrastructure is all of the buildings, roads, electrical wiring, sewers, power plants, bridges, dams, and other physical structures around us. It also matters a lot for how Americans access and use energy.

Within the sector, there are many worries about the future: the destruction of the environment, the risks of depending on foreign oil and gas, and the danger of running out of certain fuel sources altogether. Some companies and advocacy organizations have tried to address these problems through renewable, sustainable sources like solar, wind, and electricity. But government agencies and private companies have had trouble making this happen on a large scale.

Eric Rohlfing, a director at ARPA-E, the government’s energy research arm, emphasized these challenges. “The key problem with … solar is intermittency,” (meaning that environmental factors can make it unreliable) “and the lack of dispatchability — having electricity when you need it. In the solar case, it’s being able to have solar energy when the sun isn’t shining.”

Another challenge is implementing “distributed generation,” which means distributing energy through small, spread-out hubs rather than a few massive power plants. Experts think distributed generation will reduce the negative environmental effects of power plants and alleviate security concerns. If lots of small wind turbines generate the energy for a small area, for example, it would be tough for a terrorist attack to take out the power grid of an entire city. Unfortunately, companies haven’t been able to figure out a good business model for this yet, summit participants said, so it's still too pricey for the private sector.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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