Policy: Environment & Energy

White House starts energy infrastructure study

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Energy Department,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Fracking,Zack Colman,Electricity,Ernest Moniz

The nation's energy infrastructure will go under the microscope as part of a four-year review formally announced by the White House on Thursday.

The Quadrennial Energy Review, modeled after a similar Defense Department initiative, will investigate how equipped the nation's electric grid, refineries and other energy systems are to deal with cyberattacks, new energy supplies and extreme weather that scientists say might become more frequent because of climate change.

The White House said the interagency review will "study the opportunities and challenges that our energy infrastructure faces as a result of transformations in energy supply, markets, and use; issues of aging and capacity; impacts of climate change; and cyber and physical threats."

The effort builds on President Obama's second-term climate agenda, a portion of which deals with "hardening" energy infrastructure and boosting resiliency to withstand extreme weather.

The first installment will "focus on America's infrastructure for transmitting, storing, and delivering energy--much of which was built decades ago," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Obama's top science and technology adviser, John Holdren, and Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in October 2012, brought many concerns with those issues to the fore.

The storm, which scientists said was made more intense because of warmer waters and higher sea levels associated with climate change, knocked out electrical substations, cutting power to more than 7 million people. Those outages also kept gasoline in refineries, causing shortages at gas stations and forcing the federal government to tap into emergency oil stockpiles.

The electric grid also is facing challenges of incorporating growing amounts of renewable power. Obama has pledged to double the amount of renewable energy on federal land by the end of the decade, largely though wind and solar power.

But much of that power is intermittent — meaning it generates electricity when the sun shines or wind blows — and storage systems are costly. Wind farms also are typically located far from load centers that could use the power, and therefore require construction of expensive transmission lines that are hard to plan because they cross jurisdictional boundaries.

Moniz, Holdren and Muñoz touched on that "complexity" in the abstract, noting the challenges presented by the energy system's "regional nature, substantial private-sector ownership, and the multi-layered network of regulations that govern it."

The review will go beyond the electric grid system, the officials noted.

The Energy Department has recently floated several other energy infrastructure issues that need another look, including the effect water supplies have on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The drilling method is credited with driving the U.S. energy boom, but has brought fears of groundwater pollution. And water scarcity threatens to handicap its use in some regions, especially those hit by drought.

Fracking involves injecting large amounts of water, along with sand and chemicals, into tight rock formations to tap hydrocarbons buried deep underground. The Environmental Protection Agency in a 2011 study said a fracking well uses on average between 4 and 5.6 million gallons of water, depending on the shale formation.

Aside from oil and gas production, lack of water also could hinder the ability to cool power plants, the Energy Department noted in a July report.

"Drought, particularly in water-stressed regions such as the arid Southwest, can limit the amount of water available for agriculture, drinking supplies, aquatic ecosystems, fuel extraction and power generation," it said.

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