06/06/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Let's Think Critically About Our Electricity System

Shutterstock / Fer Gregory

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at the annual Energy Efficiency Global Forum in Washington, D.C. The discussion highlighted the gap between the political rhetoric on Capitol Hill and the real issues faced by changes in the electricity sector. Multiple factors are challenging the established models of both the physical and the financial infrastructure of the electricity sector. For those interested in expanding our cheapest source of energy -- efficiency -- the question is: How do changes in the electricity sector influence our ability to realize further efficiency?

Our current physical infrastructure is challenged by aging power generation plants and aging transmission lines. These outdated systems are inefficient, polluting, and lack the ability to respond to modern demands for power and to manage the increase in distributed generation. The diversification of our energy supplies beyond fossil fuels -- primarily in the forms of wind and solar energy - along with regional changes in the demand for electricity have led to mismatches between the location of power generation and the areas with growth in demand for power. In some areas we lack transmission infrastructure. Areas with the capacity for surplus electric generation are unable to transfer this energy to areas with growing demands for power. In other cases, our current grid is not "smart" enough to respond to short-term demand changes or to integrate distributed generation effectively.

Utilities are also facing challenges to their traditional financial structure. Utility companies currently operate on a model in which large, central power generation sites distribute power to customers with rates set to provide the revenue needed to finance the operation, maintenance, and upgrades of infrastructure. The more power they sell to customers, the more revenue they make. It is easy to see how implementing more stringent energy efficiency programs and integrating solar and wind leads to selling less power to customers and, therefore, lower revenues.

Utilities are well aware of these challenges. States and Public Utility Commissions have also begun to look for options to manage this transition. Congress must join this discussion to ensure that federal policy plays a productive role in easing the transition to a new model of infrastructure and financing in the electricity sector. Standing in the way of regulations to ensure cleaner air and lower carbon emissions will not deliver the flexible, reliable, and affordable power grid that we need for the 21st century. Stifling growth in renewable energy and energy efficient technologies will not keep electricity affordable or reliable.

It is time Congress joined the rest of stakeholders in this broader conversation on how best to move forward in the real world we are facing -- one that is carbon-constrained, fuel diverse, and whose demand for power places ever greater value on reliability and resiliency. Access to reliable, affordable electricity is fundamental to a modern society. We can meet the challenges to this sector if we acknowledge the true nature of those challenges. It is not about a "war on coal." It's about the need to re-design electric grids to be more flexible, more efficient, and "smarter" than the grid we designed to meet the needs of the past 60 or 70 years. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can ensure that the sector and its end users -- businesses and households -- can thrive together.

This post is part of a series from the Safe Climate Caucus. The Caucus is comprised of 38 members of the House of Representatives who have committed to ending the conspiracy of silence in Congress about the dangers of climate change. For more information, visit the Safe Climate Caucus website and like the Safe Climate Caucus on Facebook.