A Modern Electric Grid: The New Highway System?

Interactive Map: Visualizing The Electric Grid

Alyson Hurt and Andrew Prince/NPR
Power Hungry

In a series of stories airing this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered and published here on NPR.org, we examine the costs, the politics and other challenges of upgrading the country's electricity grid.

Interactive: Highway System Growth
U.S. Department of Transportation
U.S. Highways Map i i

hide captionThe U.S. interstate highway system.

Federal Highway Administration
U.S. Highways Map

The U.S. interstate highway system.

Federal Highway Administration

Hear From Eisenhower

In his 1955 annual message to Congress on the state of the union, Eisenhower said: "A modern highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security."

President Eisenhower, speaking at a White House conference on highway safety on Feb. 17, 1954, foresaw a tremendous growth in use of the nation's highway system. He said the projection of 80 million automobiles on U.S. roads by 1975 would "mean progress for our country."

Eisenhower talked to reporters at a news conference on July 14, 1954, about how the highway system should be financed. "We must have the governors and legislatures in with us," he said. "Until they come to me and show me their proposition and something that we can get together on, it is really idle to say how any single project will be financed."

The parallels are unavoidable: The plan for the national smart grid being proposed today — with all of its obstacles and opportunities — is remarkably similar to the country's push for an interstate highway system 50 years ago.

Like the old road system faced by President Eisenhower, the current electric grid is a cobbled-together network of distinct regional webs. A major overhaul of that system has the potential to do what the interstate highway did so many years ago — modernize the American economy.

It's by no means a perfect comparison. The 21st century electric grid project, unlike the network of sleek interstates, lacks a bold, unifying vision. And it would be developed mostly with private-sector money as opposed to the federal funds used to build the highways.

But a thoughtful look at the history and development of the interstate still provides a useful model for a new electric grid.

A Bold Vision

In 1919, a young Dwight D. Eisenhower set off on a cross-country road trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. It was just months after the end of World War I, and the young lieutenant colonel was part of an 81-vehicle Army convoy that set out to determine how difficult it would be to move the Army across the continent.

As they quickly discovered, it wasn't easy. The roads were narrow and unpredictable, and the trip took more than two months. Along the way, the convoy got into at least 230 accidents. The trucks repeatedly sank in the mud, ran off the road and overturned.

Thirty years later, as supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II, Gen. Eisenhower witnessed firsthand how important a strong road system could be for commerce and national security. Hitler's autobahn system made the Nazis a formidable enemy, able to move troops and goods quickly throughout Germany.

Eisenhower took those lessons to heart. As president, he made building a dependable interstate system one of the top priorities of his administration.

A Model For The Grid

In 1956, after several appeals from the president, Congress enacted the Federal-Aid Highway Act, creating an interstate system that now consists of nearly 47,000 miles of highway and took 50 years to build.

"The interstate highway system is absolutely part of the country. It seems so natural and logical to us. But in the 1950s, it was a radical thought," says Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group and granddaughter of President Eisenhower.

Susan Eisenhower is part of a growing chorus of voices who see Eisenhower's interstate highway system as the model for building a modern electric grid, a project that seems radical to many Americans today.

Like the early highway system, she explains, the current electric grid is a patchwork of disparate regional webs that are often unreliable and inefficient. And like the road system of Eisenhower's youth, she says, the electric grid requires immediate and dramatic modernization to maintain the nation's economy and security.

Building For The Future

The highway analogy is quickly gaining momentum among advocates of an expanded electric grid. Mike Heyeck, senior vice president of American Electric Power, which has built the majority of the country's new extra high-voltage electric lines, calls the comparison "striking."

Heyeck says President Eisenhower was a "visionary." The president could have advocated for a streamlined two-lane highway system, which likely would have sufficed at the time, but instead he proposed a system of multilane highways based on the country's projected commerce needs 30-40 years in the future.

A modern and interconnected electric grid, Heyeck explains, requires the same kind of bold vision. Rather than building a grid that matches current electrical needs, he says the focus should be on building a system with the transmission capacity the nation will need down the line. For Heyeck, that means building extra high-voltage lines when lower-capacity lines might suffice. In the long run, he says, that option will cost less because it limits the need for expensive expansions and renovations in the future.

Government Vs. Private Funding

But Heyeck is quick to point out a major difference between the two building projects: funding. The interstate highway system cost nearly $130 billion at the time to build and was paid for almost entirely by the federal gasoline tax.

"The difference is that we really don't need federal dollars to build the interstate transmission grid," Heyeck says. "Private investment can be garnered as long as we remove some of the impediments, such as siting and cost allocation."

With a price tag in the hundreds of billions, this is an important distinction. Private companies raise the capital to build new transmission lines, and the cost is eventually passed on to customers. For the most part, the government is left out of the arrangement.

But that doesn't mean the government won't have a role to play in the building process.

Right now, the high-voltage grid is being constructed bit by bit, with little central oversight. But Dan McNichol, author of The Roads That Built America: The Incredible Story of the U.S. Interstate System, says a key to the success of the highway system was that Eisenhower made it a top-down operation.

"Eisenhower was a master of military art," McNichol says. "He understood from his readings and history that the best road systems were built by the central government," including the roads built by Rome, Napoleon and Hitler. Each state transportation department managed its own highway-building program, but the central plan was put forth and managed by the federal government.

Building a modern electric grid is also likely to require central oversight, particularly when it comes to acquiring the land on which to build the towers and lines.

Acquiring Land

In the early years of the interstate highway system, McNichol says, people gave over their land for the project without much argument. "There was an acceptance and even a desire for the interstate system that was almost undisputed," he says.

Acquiring land for the electric grid is another story entirely. Opposition from landholders concerned about the value of their homes has delayed the construction of certain high-voltage lines for more than a decade.

The reasons are complex. Jim Fama, executive director of energy delivery at the Edison Electric Institute, an association of electric companies, says in the 1950s, there was just more available land. It was easier to find space to build that didn't run through private property or houses. Now, the country is more populated and congested. And he says the culture of the 1950s was not as litigious; people were less likely to bring a lawsuit even if the highway interfered with their property.

Fama says people tended to be more accepting of the highway project because they thought it was "an economic benefit to their community. They saw it as progress."

Convincing people that the electric lines are in the public good, McNichol says, is much more difficult. People could imagine themselves traveling along the interstate, visiting a friend or relative across the country. But the journey along the electric grid is a "virtual trip," which makes it a harder sell.

A Project To Modernize America

"When [advocates] start campaigning for the national grid, they're going to have to educate people about what this means for them — that their costs will be lower, the reception for their TV will be better and their supply of electricity will be more consistent," McNichol explains.

McNichol says that will require the kind of bold vision and leadership shown by President Eisenhower. The electric grid, he says, is every bit as important today as the interstate was in the 1950s.

Back then, the U.S. was a manufacturing society that depended on interstate commerce for economic growth. For that industrial country, the interstate was critical. Today, our growth is dependent on an information economy that relies on electricity.

Just the way the interstate modernized the America of the 1950s, McNichol says, the electric grid is needed to modernize the America of today.

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