Why transformation of the U.S. electricity system is critical

By most accounts, the U.S. is not on track to achieve the greenhouse gas reductions scientists and other experts say are needed to mitigate climate change, abate the frequency and severity of super-storms like Sandy, and protect our populated, shrinking coastlines.

In fact, the Energy Information Administration’s 2013 Annual Energy Outlook early release forecasts U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2040 well above 1990 levels -- rather than approaching the 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 called for by climate experts.

A critical lever for addressing the United States’ contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is transformation of the electricity sector. The U.S. electricity system is responsible for about 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. And while climate is a major driver of change facing the electricity system, it is by no means the only one. Grid security, grid resilience (especially in the wake of multiple natural disasters that have left millions without power for extended periods), economic development and the increasing empowerment of customers enabled by rapidly developing technology are all equally relevant drivers of change.

But in the face of what many see as an imperative for change, that change is happening slowly. Progress on national climate legislation is stagnant. Regulations enabling renewables, efficiency and other distributed energy resources are being re-evaluated; friction between renewable companies, utilities and customers is growing; and regulators and grid operators are seeking solutions to reliably and cost-effectively integrate ever-higher levels of distributed energy resources into the system. The electricity industry must find new approaches to cut through current gridlock, minimize conflict and develop real, practical solutions.

Next page: Why is it so hard to transform the electricity system?