America’s Infrastructure Report Card, produced by the ASCE, is released every four years and has the purpose of bringing to light the existing infrastructure problems and limitations in different sectors within the United States, ranging from bridges and dams to wastewater and energy. The ASCE’s committee is made up of 28 civil engineers who work closely with technical and industry experts, assessing relevant data and reports, and then assigning grades based on aspects such as current capability, future need, resilience, funding, and more.
Today’s episode is all about the last report card, which was released in 2017. We focused on the energy sector, specifically when it comes to electricity. The overall grade assigned to the sector as a whole was an alarming D+, which, according to ASCE’s criterion, means that “(…) A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with a strong risk of failure”.
Isaac, as a practicing professional engineer in the energy industry working at a utility firm, is the right person to talk about this previous grade given in 2017, and how it may differ from the next one coming right up in 2021. Why do we face so many issues in the sector? Is it likely that we’ll see the same concerns appear once again in the 2021 report card? Maybe. But what are some measures we can take now to make this grade go up for the next report cards? It’s all in today’s episode!
America’s Infrastructure Report Card (2017) – https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org
Energy Infrastructure Report (2017) – https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/energy
American Society of Civil Engineers – https://www.asce.org
The National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) – https://standards.ieee.org/products-services/nesc/index.html
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Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: What's going on, everybody? Isaac here with Civil Engineering Academy. I'm here with my daughter checking out YouTube videos. You know how it is. Hopefully you are safe. Hopefully you're doing well. You know what? I had about with Coronavirus early October, and got over that. That was a fun little journey. There's Chloe. Hi, Chloe. Chloe's joining me today. Today we're talking about the infrastructure report card. This is produced by the ASCE. They do these every four years. And what they do is they look at all kinds of different sectors within the United States, that includes bridges, roadway, energy, dams railroad, all kinds of infrastructure. And, occasionally, I like to highlight a few of these, you know, just to sprinkle them in there. And we need to talk about the grades of our infrastructure because awareness can lead to other things. Really what they're diving for is we need funding for these projects. There's a lot of things going on in government where we might be losing money to fund infrastructure, and we don't want to do that. So, we want to make sure we have funding and we also want to make sure we have good leadership to help these programs move forward so that we canget better scores on the scorecards from ASCE. So what I'm going to do today is we're going to talk about just one particular sector that is the energy sector. And the reason why I wanted to do that is simply because I'm involved in energy. So, that's what I do. That's a good one.
Isaac Oakeson: So, energy sector. I actually started out my journey in civil engineering, really, in the water world. But then I transitioned into the utility world and started working on transmission structures. So energy, you know, this is something that I relate to, and it'd be fun to talk about these report cards in other sectors, sprinkle them in throughout the year or whatnot, as we kind of do some podcast episodes together. So, anyway, we want to talk about this. This is the 2017. This is coming from the 2017 infrastructure report card by the ASCE. Like I said, they do these every four years. So, if you do the math on that, they should be doing another one in 2021. So probably next year. So, anyway, let's dive into it. Today we're talking about the energy report card, this is coming from the infrastructure report card from the ASCE, and it's going to be a good one. So, here we go.
Isaac Oakeson: Energy report card. The energy report card. If you were to guess what our grade was in the United States for energy, what would you grade us as? Chloe, what grade do we get for energy? She's already diving into her Halloween chocolate. Show us your chocolates. Oh, yeah. Awesome. So, if you were to give us a grade, Chloe, would we get an A grade or a D grade? We get an A. She gave us an A. Ooh, that's pretty good. But that's not right. We actually get a D+ on the energy. And they score that based on the outages that we've had in the United States. So, we've had over 3,500 outages reported in one year. I bet this grade goes down quite a bit simply because of wildfires that we've had over the last two years or so, and more where vegetation has been cleared out, and a lot of outages have been related to wildfires. So, just as a brief overview of this, much of the United States, the entire energy system, really predates the turn of the 20th century, which means we have a really old infrastructure. Most electric transmission distribution lines and transmission lines were created in like the fifties and sixties. And most of these, when they're built, they have a 50-year life span. I know this because I'm working in the utility world and we have poles sometimes that are hundred years old. And that really depends on the climate that you're in. In Utah, we have a drier climate, usually wood poles do last very, very long, but I don't think we're any different than a lot of other utilities out there. And a lot of people just do not update their stuff because it costs money to update your stuff. That's the truth of it. So, anyway, that's kind of a where we're at. We've hit our 50-year life span, well over it, in a lot of places and really not meeting the grade for that.
Isaac Oakeson: So, they've listed here more than 640,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 States, and they say they are at full capacity. Energy infrastructure is undergoing increased investment. So, lots of money's being pumped in to house the energy demands, especially with the electric vehicles that are about to be pumped out in assembly lines here very quickly. They already have been, but we're getting more, and more, and more. It seems like the utility world is actually becoming the gas station which is crazy to me. Anyway, they're looking at money that we need to increase the investment to ensure a long-term capacity and sustainability. In the year 2015, 40% of additional power generation came from natural gas and renewable systems. I can tell you that number is way, way up for renewables. My own utility has been pumping millions, and millions, and millions of dollars into solar, as well as wind generation. We're going more and more away from the coal, which is probably what everybody's doing, but that's just the nature of the business right now. So there's just a lot to that. But we've also been decommissioning a lot ofwater dams, hydroelectric dams that have been producing power and things of that nature, and trying to restore a lot of things. So, the way of the future really tends to be looking at renewablesNatural gas is a good one as well, but that's just where we're headed.
Isaac Oakeson: So, without greater attention to the aging equipment, what they've said is this has created really a capacity bottleneck ─ Not good. Bottlenecks are not good ─ as increased demands go up. We also have climate impacts. Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions, which is not good for anybody because everything we have is electronic these days, and it's frustrating when you have power outages. Imagine power outages for weeks, or months, or longer. Like, are you prepared for that? Do you have infrastructure? Do you have stuff that you could be prepared for a scenario like that? I mean, electricity is definitely high on the list of things that we need to improve upon, and I think we can do that. And companies are putting a lot of money into infrastructure, but more can be done. You can see what's happening in California with the wildfires. You know, a lot of those issues have stemmed from the maintenance of their transmission and power lines. Their distribution lines not trimming vegetation that's around those. So,you know, when a spark hits, a lot of that dry stuff, it just lights up. So you gotta make sure that's all taken care of. And then just upgrade your infrastructure and make sure you're meeting clearances, which means you need to go a little higher, make sure you're meeting code, which is the NESC ─ National Electric Safety Code ─, on top of putting in a buffer for construction tolerances, which people should be aware of.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Next, let's talk about capacity and conditions. So, near term, the US energy systems are projected to deliver sufficient energy to meet our demands right now, because consumption fell slightly. You know, not a ton. So, they compare that. But, in general, the capacity and the trends thereare that we need a lot morePopulations are growing, demands are growing, and we've already kind of hit upon that. So, to reduce the electric demand, changing delivery costs and new regulations, including those focused on reducing environmental impact, is really important. We need to have prompt transformations across the sector, with growth in natural gas, solar and wind generation. This lists, in 2015, 40% of additional power generation came from natural gas and renewable systems. I know that's way up. Fossil fuels and uranium have limited reserves, leaving them unable to meet future power generation and delivery needs, is what they've listed. Electricity and oil and gas deliver via well-maintained wires and pipelines remain the most efficient and safe supply chains. New distribution technologies may play an increased important long-term role, particularly as cities grow in population. So, let's just take a look at it. We could dive into oil and gas and those things to deal with energy, but I'm just going to look at electricity. It's what I want to hit with you. So, electricity delivered in the US depends on aging and a complex patchwork of systems and power generation facilities. Basically includes transmission and distribution grids. You have transmission, which is taking from, basically, the power plant, transmits it over long distances with AC power ─ alternating current ─ and that's transmissioned on long towers ─ It's how it's transmitted ─, long lines that eventually hit substations, and that's transferred into distribution, which is carried to your house or wherever it needs to go. So that's kind of how that power system works.
Isaac Oakeson: So, these are owned by an array of investors. There are publicly-owned utilities, independent power producers, and governmental agencies. There's a wide portfolio of people that own power in the electric sector. So, while investor-owned utilities make up only 6% of the number of electricity providers, they serve actually almost 70% of all electric customers. So, think about that. Investor-Owned utilities make up only 6% of the number of electricity providers, but they provide almost 70% of power to all customers. So you know, we need more money involved in there. Put some money back in infrastructure. It's like we said, the infrastructure is getting old. Most T&D lines were constructed in the fifties and sixties. They have a 50-year lifespan. They were not originally engineered to meet today's demands, nor were they engineered to meet the severe weather climate that sometimes we are facing, including hurricanes fire. Now we're designing structures to be able to withstand fires, so that they don't burn down. Very high winds. A lot of places were designing for hurricane-type winds. As a design engineer, we typically design for 90 mile per hour winds, but in high scenarios, we're up to 110 mile per hour winds and higher. So, we're making sure we're increasing those weather cases, those loads due to extreme weather events. So weather's getting crazy.
Isaac Oakeson: So with more than 64,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines across the three interconnecting electric transmission grids, you have the East, you have the West and you have Texas. They have their own kind of big system. So, the lower 48 power grid is at full capacity, as listed by the ASCE. And they're operating well beyond their design, which we've talked about. Often, a single line cannot be taken out of service to perform maintenance, as, if they do take it out, you're going to cause a outage to a ton of people. This is a problem. This is why we have to create redundant lines so that you can drop a line, maintain the other line, or do maintenance at the substation. This is something that is not done very often. And it should be. I shouldn't say "done very often". It should be "done more", and we just sometimes don't. If a line is feeding one direction and there's not two lines to a substation, let's say, that's called a radial line. It has one line out there. If it needs to be dropped, you're taking out all those customers to maintain that line. And so, they've knocked that as an issue. Okay? You can't perform service on a line, you're taking out the line, that's an issue. So, grids operating in Alaska and Hawaii are similarly congested and physically islanded from the other States, so they can't get power from the other States. They can't share power. They call it wheeling. You can't get power from another location because you're out on an Island. So, sorry if you're in Hawaii Alaska. Sounds like they have issues there. So, as a result of aging infrastructure, severe weather events, and attacks, and vandalism, in 2015, Americans experienced a report of over 3,500 outages, and with an average duration time of about an hour. 50 minutes.
Isaac Oakeson: So, this report is about to get updated in 2021. I'd be very interested in seeing how it compares to the way it was written in 2017. But I imagine that there are actually the same issues. Sothat's kind of the nature of it. So, here's their recommendations to raise the grade. This is how we get out of a D+ situation, out of the ditch. They want us to adopt a federal energy policy that carefully assesses needsand then including alternative energy sources. To look at all the sources for energy so that we can generate that. Provide a clear direction for meeting current and future demands. So, do we have a plan for the future growth? Most utilities do have a plan. They have to do projections on where things are headed. So, I don't understand why that is an issue, but maybe some utilities need more help. They want us to streamline permitting processes to facilitate prompt construction of critical new transmission lines and natural gas pipelines. Process streamlining must include steps to consider alternative approaches and ensure prudent and safe routing. So, that's to do with pipelines. They want us to develop a storm-hardening plan, which makes sense, for investing in TnD, and we want to make sure that we can withstand storms that are happening, which I've talked about earlier. We want to make sure thatif we have very high winds, we have fire events, we have crazy weather, that the lines can still stay standing and we can energize them quickly. More and more, what companies are doing in utility world, what they're actually doing is turning off the power in high-wind situations. You can see this happening in California. They'll turn off the power when they get a high wind, because they don't want to be caught. They don't want to be the issue of any sort of fires or causing a fire. So, that kind of sucks because you're going to lose your power during that event. But they're trying to, you know, get ahead of the game. So, hopefully with these improvements, we don't have to do that as much.
Isaac Oakeson: Other things they list. Increase new rebuilt distribution lines. Minimum design loads for ice, wind, temperature, to improve reliability. So, make sure you hit meaning proper clearances. If you need to boost those clearances, let's do that promote usage of remote sensing and inspection technologies. So, they want us to be able to inspect these lines better, which definitely makes sense, because a lot of these issues with fires are because we haven't been inspecting lines very well. I know, where I work, we inspect all of our lines. I think at least once a year. So, that requires a lot of effort, a lot of manpowerYou know, with drones and such that are happening, technology is definitely improving on doing inspections, which is always nice and exciting to use. Chloe, what do you think? Thumbs up? Yes, that's a thumbs up. So, yeah, she agrees with meGood job, Chloe.
Isaac Oakeson: So a few bullet items, then we'll wrap this up. So, they want to implement performance-based regulations that mandate verification of integrity of pipelines, as well as transmission lines. We're already doing that in some utilities. They want to promote usage of accepted engineering standards over all overhead T&D lines to help safety and reliability. So, at least in my own utility where we serve six States, we are combining our efforts with some other utilities that still fall under our main umbrella and trying to formalize standardson transmission design lines you know, for clearances, for a lot of these safety issues. So, it's something that we'll always be editing and improving over time. So, there you have it. I could dive into more, butwe're running out of time and I just want to make sure to get this out there.
Isaac Oakeson: So our report card for energy was a D+, which really, really sucks. We need more money, we needmore leadership andby improving these things, we can definitely get this grade up. I'd love to see this around a B. I can't believe it's a D plus. That's pretty crazy. There's one last thing I want to read here, but for electricity, including on the infrastructure, the investment gap that they're statingbetween 2016 and 2025, is listed to be $177 billion. So they're saying we have a gap of $177 billion between 2017 and 2015 in order to get this thing up to par. So, funding is an issueCan't be an issue. A lot of this stuff, hopefully, If you're owned by a private utility, they're putting money into your infrastructure, but electricity is something that we definitely have to have. We have an old infrastructure with lines being built in the fifties and sixties that still need to be updated. And it's an issue.
Isaac Oakeson: Guys this is what I have for you for this report card. The ASCE Report Card, listed in 2017. There'll be another one coming out in 2021. I'm positive. And that would be fun to compare this one with that one, but this is just one little sliver of all the places that they did. If you want to go check out the infrastructure report, go to infrastructurereportcard.org, and be aware of the issues in your own sector. It's always fun to learn about them and see what you can do to help whether that's, you know, getting more involved in the political arenavoting for candidates that support the things you care about, which includes infrastructure, upgrades, and things of that nature. Anyway, hopefully you're doing well, and that's going to be our energy report cardpodcast episode. Hopefully this was informative to you. It was informative to me. Chloe really liked it. She enjoyed her chocolate. She's watching her shows. And she's love in life. Anyway, we had a good time. Thanks for being here, and we'll see you in the next one. Bye!
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