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American Energy Security and Innovation: Grid Reliability Challenges in a Shifting Energy-Resource Landscape

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CAP Senior Fellow Daniel J. Weiss delivers remarks for testimony before the Subcommittee on Energy and Power of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on “American Energy Security and Innovation: Grid Reliability Challenges in a Shifting Energy-Resource Landscape.”

Discussing electricity security and innovation while ignoring climate change is like discussing personal health while ignoring cigarette smoking, diet, and exercise. Any examination of this shifting landscape must acknowledge that our electricity-generation systems produce much of the carbon pollution responsible for climate change and that the effects of climate change impair electricity reliability. Since coal-fired power plants emit one-third of the climate pollution in the United States, it is irresponsible to assess changes in our electricity system while ignoring climate pollution and its impacts.

Americans understand that extreme weather is related to man-made climate change that costs our economy billions of dollars annually. A recent poll from Yale University and George Mason University found that many Americans believe that global warming caused recent extreme weather and climatic events to be “more severe.”

Extreme weather events—including storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires—threaten electricity reliability. The Congressional Research Service concluded that, “[P]ower delivery systems are most vulnerable to storms and extreme weather events.

These events also threaten American lives and the economy. The most severe and extreme weather events caused 1,107 deaths and $188 billion in damages in 2011 and 2012. A Center for American Progress analysis found that federal natural disaster-relief and recovery spending cost taxpayers $136 billion in the fiscal years from 2011 to 2013, or $400 per household annually. And the National Climate Assessment draft warns us that we can expect more extreme and severe weather, including droughts and rainstorms. The severe 2012 drought, for example, interfered with electricity generation in California, Connecticut, Illinois, and New York by shrinking the amount of cooling water available for power plants. It also disrupted oil and natural gas production.

Superstorm Sandy and other severe storms disrupted electricity transmission and distribution by downing power lines and damaging substations. The National Climate Assessment draft predicts that future climate-change-related events will interfere with electricity transmission.

We urge the subcommittee to support policies to achieve a more secure, reliable electricity system by accomplishing the following three goals:

1. Support policies that slow climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants, the largest uncontrolled source of emissions.

Failing that, EPA must at least comply with the Supreme Court by setting such standards  under the Clean Air Act.

Americans favor such pollution reductions. The poll from Yale University and George Mason University found that voters support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

And American Electric Power, Xcel, and Entergy all testified before this subcommittee earlier this year in favor of legislation to address climate change.

Finally, there is no evidence that pollution standards for power plants impair reliability. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, and the Congressional Research Service all found that the Mercury Air Toxics Standard has no impact on reliability. A Department of Energy and Congressional Research Service analysis found that the biggest impediment to reliability is weather.

2. Provide financial incentives for innovative energy efficiency and no- or low-carbon electricity technologies, which would reduce reliance on dirty fossil fuels responsible for climate change.

Federal investments in emerging clean energy technologies should continue. Historically, fossil fuels have received vastly more federal support than renewable technologies.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, for example, found that over the past 60 years, 70 percent of federal energy spending went to fossil fuels, while only 10 percent was for renewables.

3. Act to enhance the resilience of the electricity infrastructure to extreme storms, drought, sea level rise, and other impacts of climate change. 

Investments in resiliency to extreme weather save money. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that “a dollar spent on [pre-disaster] mitigation saves society an average of $4” in lower damages.

Yet even as extreme weather increases, the federal government is investing less in community resilience.

Rep. Lois Capps and 39 of her colleagues urged the federal government to undertake a plan that:

  • Identifies federal programs that already provide funding for resilience efforts
  • Estimates the financial support necessary to helps communities prepare for the anticipated impacts of increased climate-related extreme weather
  • Creates a dependable revenue stream to provide additional resources for local pre-disaster mitigation planning

In addition, the Congressional Research Service recommends more investments in smart-grid and transmission repairs to improve reliability.

The growing harm from climate change necessitates prompt transition from dirty to cleaner electricity generation. This is underway here and overseas. Iowa, for example, generates 20 percent of its electricity from wind. And six years after a devastating tornado, Greensburg, Kansas, is “100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent of the time.”

Looking abroad, Portugal produced 70 percent of energy with renewables in the first quarter of 2013. And Germany generated 26 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in the first half of 2012.

Congress must adopt policies that speed this transition across the nation, while helping our electricity system become more resilient to damages from climate-related storms, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Thanks to Mari Hernandez, Research Associate, and Jackie Weidman, Special Assistant, on the Energy Policy team of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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