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.
But the power plants we have now won’t be sustainable for long. “This country and all of us are becoming increasingly dependent on electricity,” said Skila Harris, a senior adviser to the Secretary of Energy. “Many of the ways you characterize the grid are accurate – it’s old, it needs new lines. Right now, we are much more vulnerable to any of the weaknesses in that grid because of the electrical intensity each of us have.”
So where does the government come into all of this? Representative John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, recognizes that the private sector is important, but he thinks this kind of development is one of the main responsibilities of government.
“The question is, ‘How do we pay for it?’ Delaney asked. “Governments are, in fact, overburdened.” As this week’s showdown on Capitol Hill proves, Congress is deeply divided over budget issues. Infrastructure is expensive. And especially at a time when many government employees are not even getting paid, it’s difficult to imagine that legislators will set aside cash for these kinds of long-term investments.
Spencer Abraham, a former Republican senator from Michigan who served as secretary of energy during the first part of the Bush administration, argued that the best thing governments can do is offer tax breaks and other incentives for private companies to build new energy grids. “So much of the support has to come from the utilities and local level. That’s where this gets built – it doesn’t get built in Washington. Regulators [have to] appreciate the extent to which utilities [companies] who are called upon to provide these resources are adequately able to afford them and deploy them,” he said.
Delaney has proposed a bill in the House to create something along these lines: a government-funded, independent “infrastructure financing machine,” as he called it. He envisions a fund that would offer tax breaks to companies that buy special infrastructure bonds. In other words, he wants to make it attractive for the private sector to “loan” money to state and local governments so that they can build the infrastructure they need.
So far, Delaney’s efforts have met the same fate as most other legislation created this year: gridlock. “Some people on my side think there’s a lot of evil going on with U.S. corporations around this issue. They don’t like anything that creates any advantage [for those corporations],” he said. “Some of my colleagues on the Republican side look at this and say, ‘Is this another one of those infrastructure bank proposals?’ There are a lot of myths you have to debunk.”