A group of seventh- and eighth-grade students from St. Mary's School in Swormville recently contacted National Grid, looking for assistance with a school project they've undertaken as part of a national competition.
They want to know what our electricity system will look like in 100 years. Great question, isn't it? Whether the kids know it or not, their timing is perfect.
Predicting how electricity will be generated, delivered and used a century from now is probably a bit ambitious, but there is no time like the present to start.
The interest in our electrical system is not exclusive to Buffalo. The issues are similar whether you are in Buffalo, Syracuse or Albany. Our country is at a crossroads when it comes to energy policy. Attention is building on the need to respond to greenhouse gas, fossil fuel dependency and climate change issues, and the will to move forward builds with it.
At the same time, companies like ours are investing billions of dollars to maintain and improve our existing infrastructure to assure that energy can be delivered safely and reliably.
National Grid recently submitted to the New York Public Service Commission a detailed analysis of the current state of the electric delivery infrastructure in our upstate New York service territory, and an equally detailed plan to invest more than $1.4 billion in the system by the end of 2011.
The good news is that our network is generally sound. We have identified areas that need immediate attention, and work on upgrades and new infrastructure is already under way.
We are committed to improving the reliability of our delivery network, because our customers both deserve and demand it. We know, however, that many of our facilities are reaching the end of their useful lives. This issue is not unique to National Grid, or even unique to New York State.
Looking beyond our current five-year plan, National Grid and other utilities will need to invest tens of billions of dollars more to replace aging assets, and build additional infrastructure to keep pace with growing customer demand. Investment in the grid in the coming decades will need to be at higher levels than we've seen in the past.
The ability to replace and upgrade our networks is increasingly affected by other policy issues and goals that will affect network design and cost. Many basic yet important questions are still to be answered about national and regional energy policies.
What are the expectations of the grid 10 or 20 years from today? What technology upgrades should be incorporated now? How can a "smart grid" contribute to the state's environmental and other social policy goals? What potential future changes -- for example, widespread distributed generation -- need to be taken into account to enhance system flexibility? What policies will determine the fuels to be used for electricity generation? How does the value of the upgrades in improved reliability and efficiency compare to the impact of the investments on customers' rates?
Industry and regulatory experts tend to agree that there must be substantial investment in new electric transmission, both to strengthen the existing network and position us to deal with retirements of older fossil-fuel generation plants and the introduction of smaller, cleaner-generating facilities in many new locations.
The expected massive investment in infrastructure and technology brings the issue of project siting approval into sharp focus, as well. Timely approval of projects will help assure that necessary investment gets made when and where it is needed. At the same time, we must assure the host communities that their interests have been considered.
Investment in infrastructure is critical but, as a society, we also must do more to advance energy conservation as a means to address climate change and economic issues.
We are ready to begin a dialogue with all interested parties -- regulators, elected officials, customers and other stakeholders -- about the electricity delivery system of the future. This conversation must focus on finding ways to assure these goals are met cooperatively; to avoid competing for attention and dollars. The outcome of this discussion will form the core of New York State's energy, environmental and economic policy for decades to come.
So, to the kids at St. Mary's School, what will the network look like in 100 years?
I don't know, but we owe it to them to start working on the answer.
Tom King is president of National Grid USA.