Although the U.S. power grid was built throughout the 20th century, much of the physical infrastructure still in place today dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, the United States now experiences more blackouts than any other developed country, with electric companies reporting more than 2,500 major outages since 2002. Decades of chronic underinvestment in grid infrastructure have resulted in an outdated, inefficient, and unreliable power system—one that disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.
The consequences of the country’s aging power grid continue to make headlines and are being exacerbated by climate change. In 2019, the California Camp Fire—the most destructive fire in the state’s history, responsible for killing 85 people—was ignited by a faulty transmission line. Just this past February, winter storms led to more than 4.5 million homes in Texas losing power—some for several days—and 111 deaths, despite previous warnings that equipment needed to be weatherized.
These events have amplified the need for grid modernization—not only upgrading and weatherizing the current grid, but also expanding transmission lines to new sources of renewable energy generation. President Joe Biden has echoed this need through the recent release of his American Jobs Plan, which includes federal spending and tax incentives to improve grid infrastructure. Following the enactment of the American Rescue Plan, Congress is now in a position to legislate the robust, far-sighted investments that the electric power grid needs.
Investments in grid modernization are crucial for a number of reasons, including minimizing the risk of future blackouts, transitioning the United States to a 100 percent clean energy economy, and preparing for the intensifying impacts of climate change. These objectives share an opportunity to improve the equity of the U.S. power system, providing every American regardless of their background with access to reliable, pollution-free, and affordable electricity.
Improving equitable grid reliability
The reliability of the power grid in the United States varies considerably by region and community, and when the grid does fail, the consequences do not affect everyone equally. Images of the power outages in Texas put this reality in sharp relief: While downtown areas were largely unaffected, the surrounding, lower-income neighborhoods endured blackouts that in some places went on for several days. Texas’ marginalized and underserved neighborhoods are just a small subset of the countless neighborhoods across the country that are more vulnerable to power outages because of systemic racism, disinvestment, and segregationist housing policies such as redlining.
One of the most common and salient causes of power outages is extreme weather—such as hurricanes, ice storms, strong windstorms, and extreme heat—which is only projected to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change. Extreme weather and other threats can cause grid failure at any stage of electricity delivery, from generation to distribution. The same low-income communities and communities of color harmed by racist housing and infrastructure policies are also the ones most threatened by climate change impacts and the most likely to suffer from consequential grid failures. When already outdated grid infrastructure is damaged by an extreme weather event, it can also take longer to repair and restore power to surrounding households, creating dangerous conditions for families during heat waves and cold snaps, as well as for those who rely on power-operated medical equipment to survive.
Investments in grid modernization—including in low-income areas and communities of color—would minimize the risk of future power outages and mitigate the effects of those outages on communities across the country. These investments should include diversifying the energy resource mix by integrating more renewable energy generation and energy storage. Grid reliability should also be improved through grid resilience measures such as infrastructure hardening and smart grid technologies to promote grid flexibility.
Reducing toxic air pollution
Over the last century, the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels for power generation has disproportionately subjected low-income communities and communities of color to dangerous and life-threatening health risks. Every step of the way—from extraction to refinement to burning—fossil fuels emit greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants into the surrounding environment, most often in communities of color, where fossil fuel production facilities are more likely to be sited compared with white communities. Studies have shown that the acute and sustained exposure to this pollution has caused poorer people and people of color to suffer higher rates of cancer, asthma, and other serious health problems.
Enhancing grid flexibility and expanding long-distance transmission would considerably cut pollution by enabling an increase in the share of electricity generated by renewable energy resources—namely wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. Wind and solar farms are often located far from where electricity demand is greatest, and renewable energy development can be stymied by poor planning, lack of connectivity, and congested power lines. By facilitating the integration of cost-competitive renewable energy generation into the power mix, investments in transmission would accelerate the retirement of conventional fossil fuel power plants.
Improving the generation of and access to renewable energy would complement the increased deployment of modern grid technologies such as energy storage. In addition, utility-scale energy storage would replace the need for peaking power plants—commonly known as peaker plants—which rely on fossil fuel generation to meet periods of high electricity demand. Peaker plants emit incredibly high concentrations of toxic air pollutants such as nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and small particulate matter. Of the more than 1,000 fossil fuel peaker plants in operation in the United States, the majority are located in low-income communities and communities of color. Well-designed grid modernization investments would expedite the retirement of these plants and deliver meaningful environmental and public health benefits for those living on the front lines of their pollution.
Lastly, upgrading the power grid is essential to supporting the wide-scale use of zero-emission electric vehicles. As more people switch to electric vehicles, the power grid must be equipped to reliably manage the additional electricity demand required to charge them. Transitioning away from gas-powered cars is easier for consumers when electric charging is reliable, convenient, and affordable. Grid modernization would support that transition and by doing so would facilitate the reduction of toxic emissions from gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.
Cutting energy bills and ending energy poverty
Investing in a cleaner, more efficient, and more reliable power grid would lower energy costs for ratepayers. Low-income households are particularly burdened by electricity costs, as energy bills account for a much larger portion of their monthly income than those of wealthier households. Among these low-income households, people of color suffer from energy insecurity more than white people, and Black families have been found to have the highest rates of energy insecurity across all levels of income. More grid capacity will help deliver much-needed relief to energy-burdened low-income households and Black, brown, and Indigenous communities.
A 2020 report by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) found that large-scale transmission upgrades would cut consumer electric bills by more than $100 billion by 2050 and decrease the average electric bill rate by more than one-third, saving a typical household more than $300 per year. With nearly 1 in 3 households struggling to pay their energy bills, these savings would reduce the energy bill burden on households and help to end energy poverty in the United States.
Creating good-paying, high-quality jobs
Upgrading the transmission grid will also create thousands of good-paying jobs at a time when unemployment rates are still recovering from the coronavirus-induced recession. For example, ACEG has estimated that the construction of 22 shovel-ready transmission projects would lead to the creation of 1.24 million jobs and 60,000 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity.
Jobs in transmission, distribution, and storage tend to pay prevailing wages and have one of the highest rates of unionization in the energy sector—around 17 percent in 2020, almost triple that of the national private sector. Unionization across sectors of the economy has historically excluded workers of color, leaving Black, Latinx, and other racial and ethnic groups unable to access the multitude of benefits unions have. These grid investments and jobs should be targeted to environmental justice and economically disadvantaged communities to ensure historical inequities are not repeated in the clean energy economy.
Federal investments in the power grid to advance economic, racial, and environmental equity
The enactment of any infrastructure package such as President Biden’s American Jobs Plan would be incomplete without long-term federal investments in the nation’s power grid that intentionally address the country’s long-standing history of economic, racial, and environmental injustice. These investments should include revitalizing the Smart Grid Investment Grant program, funding other U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grid modernization and clean energy programs—including expanding on DOE’s pledge to dedicate $8.35 billion in loans for improving the grid—and directing project funds to environmental justice communities, as well as investment tax credits for long-range transmission lines and energy storage. The DOE and other federal agencies should also provide Black, brown, Indigenous and low-income communities—who have historically borne the brunt of pollution from power plants—with grants for clean energy microgrids; energy storage; and other projects that reduce pollution from fossil fuels, lower energy costs for consumers, and improve the energy resiliency of critical infrastructure. The federal government should also remove barriers to interregional planning, facilitating the connection of distant renewable energy to load centers, and create incentives or mandates that allow for better leverage of existing rights of way during the siting of transmission lines to avoid community disruption.
These policies cannot alone reverse the harmful and persistent effects of systemic racism and environmental injustice in the United States. While improving the grid will bring benefits to communities in need, the Biden administration must also fulfill the president’s commitment to ensuring that at least 40 percent of federal investments provide direct and measurable benefits to environmental justice and other disadvantaged communities. In addition, the administration must implement energy and climate policies that mandate emissions reductions in Black, brown, and Indigenous communities; low-income communities; and environmental justice communities overburdened by pollution, as well as strengthen and rigorously enforce air and water pollution standards for power plants through the Environmental Protection Agency.
The need for grid modernization is as urgent as it is apparent. As the country looks to rebuild and transition to a clean energy economy, now is the time for the federal government to begin repairing the harms and injustices of past infrastructure policies. With the right scale of targeted investments, complemented by strong measures to root out systemic racism and reduce pollution in environmental justice communities, the United States can revolutionize the power grid—improving environmental equity; fighting the climate crisis; and providing affordable, clean, and reliable electricity to all Americans.
Mikyla Reta is a research associate for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Elise Gout is a research associate for Climate and Energy Policy at the Center.
The authors would like to thank Will Beaudouin, Christian Rodriguez, Richard Figueroa, Cathleen Kelly, and Trevor Higgins from the Center for American Progress; Rob Gramlich from Grid Strategies and Americans for a Clean Energy Grid; and Arjun Krishnaswami from the National Resources Defense Council for their contributions to this column.
Authors’ note: The ideas in this column reflect the views of the authors and the Center for American Progress and do not necessarily represent the views of any environmental justice organizations.