Modernizing US Energy Infrastructure: DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review

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Earlier, we touched on climate change as a core element in American diplomacy as practiced by the Department of State. We’ll now take a look at the first Quadrennial Energy Review, released by the government late in April. The US Department of Energy published the review pursuant to the June 2013 Climate Action Plan and as ordered in a presidential memorandum in January 2014.

The QER examines how the US will modernize our energy infrastructure to promote economic competitiveness, energy security, and environmental responsibility in the 20-teens and forward. Although it skirts the issue of storage, the document focuses on power transmission, storage, and distribution infrastructure:

  • Increasing the Resilience, Reliability, Safety, and Asset Security of TS&D Infrastructure
  • Modernizing the Electric Grid
  • Modernizing U.S. Energy Security Infrastructures in a Changing Global Marketplace
  • Improving Shared Transport Infrastructures
  • Integrating North American Energy Markets
  • Addressing Environmental Aspects of TS&D Infrastructure
  • Enhancing Employment and Workforce Training
  • Siting and Permitting of TS&D Infrastructure

A final chapter summarizes the analytical and stakeholder process. A DOE-prepared fact sheet here provides more information on each of these points.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Energy finds that the United States “has one of the most advanced energy systems in the world, supplying the reliable, affordable, and increasingly clean power and fuels that underpin every facet of the Nation’s economy and way of life.” Its energy transmission, storage, and distribution infrastructure includes the following, according to DOE:

  • Aging natural gas pipelines in the United States ( 2.6 million miles of interstate and intrastate pipelines (adjacent figure examines their age);
  • 414 natural gas storage facilities;
  • 330 ports handling crude petroleum and refined petroleum products; and
  • More than 140,000 miles of railways that handle crude petroleum, refined petroleum products, liquid natural gas, and coal.

The QER looks at these existing infrastructure elements to identify vulnerabilities in the system we have now. It proposes policy recommendations and investments to replace, expand, and modernize capabilities for the future:

USDOE perspective on TSE&D infrastructure (

From the start, the energy infrastructure analysis, presented above, with its obvious links to the currently dominant fossil and nuclear fuels (or, as DOE puts it, “the bulk power system”), has a glaring omission. It ignores the perspective of small-scale wind, solar, and other nonfossil energy modes (except biofuels), which have shown remarkable growth and long-term promise than the cumbersome, time-consuming, and enormously expensive power strategies of the past.

The electrical infrastructure DOE refers to can be used by projects with a capacity of a megawatt or more ( links more than 19,000 individual generators sited at over 7,000 operational power plants, with over 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 6.3 million miles of distribution lines). Smaller-scale renewables, minigrids, and grid-free standalone installations apparently do not form a part of the analysis, nimble and easily proliferated as they are.

Renewables do get a bit of sideways recognition in the consideration of how the existing electric power grid can be tweaked for the future, which allows a partly realistic and climate-relevant context for transitioning from more dangerous fuels. Overall, though, like many other DOE analyses, the QER is constrained by business-as-usual thinking and ignores promising developments. The attitude seems sadly inconsistent with the gung-ho tone of DOE’s renewables-focused reports. DOE still evinces two separate faces with respect to power in the US.

The QER breaks out federal mechanisms and tools that will help the United States toward each of its infrastructure objectives.

USDOE Quadrennial Energy Review tools for federal action (

Investment in transportation infrastructure by investor-owned utilities ( way of example, it also quantifies how investor-owned utilities have augmented infrastructure over a recent 15-year period.

Another important breakout—especially in view of Washington’s deadlock—specifies and quantifies DOE recommendations that will require legislative action in these areas:

  • The Smart Grid of the future,
  • Modernizing energy security,
  • Building in resilience, safety, and recovery functions,
  • Improving shared energy infrastructure, and
  • Integrating North American energy markets (US, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean).


QER recommendations requiring legislative action (

However–and this is a good sign–the climate eye overlooks all energy infrastructure, as shown in figures like this map of Gulf of Mexico petroleum facilities and their susceptibility to differing scenarios of sea-level rise.

Gulf coast power infrastructure vulnerable to sea level rise (

By way of summary, the report graphs historic and projected US power-related emissions during the past 30 and next 15 years.

Present and future US carbon emissions under Obama administration  targets ( policy can reach the 26-28% below 2005 level by 2025, and about 80% by 2050. These are not sufficient to fill the gap, according to the newest sources, but they are consistent with American international promises, and some observers feel they can be exceeded, especially if renewable power has its way.

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