A bipartisan infrastructure deal is possible by Memorial Day. But if the negotiations collapse, Senate Democrats will pass their own slimmed-down budget bill through the so-called reconciliation process. But some Republicans are eager to reach a compromise — one that would invest heavily in rural America.
The infrastructure measure is intended to modernize the country’s backbone and to achieve decarbonization. That has strong international appeal and positions the United States to lead the charge against climate change. But at face value, it might “turn off” rural voters who are more focused on job security and energy costs than they are on cooperative agreements.
President Biden, though, promises to rejuvenate hard-hit regions. Contemplate Appalachia: federal funds would go to reclaiming abandoned coal mines and capping old oil and gas wells. The monies would also pay for and train workers to run wind and solar projects, build electric vehicle charging stations, and create energy-efficient homes and businesses. A multi-billion investment in that region would be expected to create thousands of new jobs.
“All communities can participate in this transition,” says Karen Wayland, president of the Gridwise Alliance during a symposium sponsored by the United States Energy Association and where this writer was a panelist. “It has incredible support from the public and a slight increase in corporate taxes is popular. The size of the package is in question — not whether it gets done. This transition is happening anyway. The infrastructure bill will accelerate it.”
President Biden’s infrastructure plan would cost $2.25 trillion over eight years. Senate Republicans have said that they will go as high as $800 billion over five years. But does the economy need a massive infusion of federal spending to prep the grid and to get on an unyielding track to decarbonization? Today, for example, 20% of all energy used in homes and industry is electric, says the Electric Power Research Institute, EPRI. That that number could reach as high as 60% in 2050.
Dr. Wayland says that such a transformation makes grid modernization imperative. Not only must the wires be able to carry more green energy, but they must also be able to detect outages before they occur — and to redirect traffic. The network must also facilitate two-way communications between utilities and customers to save energy. And cars will be using less gasoline and more electricity to fuel up. Electric vehicles and onsite generators, meanwhile, must be able to feed electricity onto the system to meet peak demand. What about energy cost?
“We see electricity as a more efficient source of energy,” says Robert Chapman, a senior vice president for EPRI, at the symposium. “You can’t decarbonize and add in reliability without cost going up. But it is displacing other less efficient and more expensive fuels. An economy-wide transition will be affordable.”
The trend toward decarbonization is irreversible. President Biden’s plan wants to accelerate this movement by beefing up the country’s backbone and modernizing the nation’s grid to handle more green energy and electric vehicles. While that is a threat to older industries, it is also a lucrative opportunity — especially for those regions that feel forgotten.
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