Construction and Maintenance Department Director Jim Ross testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy Feb. 27 about how the federal government can improve the state of the nation’s energy infrastructure.
Ross and representatives of local government, industry, labor, higher education and the environmental movement were asked about what the federal government should do to help modernize energy infrastructure and improve workforce training and development in the energy sector.
“Our nation’s energy infrastructure – the traditional baseload power plants, windmills, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, pipelines, power lines, fossil fuel production facilities, and import/export terminals – make up the backbone of our economy,” said committee chairman, Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden. “While there are many difficult details to work out, I believe there is support for a broad infrastructure bill.”
Ross said that the need to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure was getting its rightful attention these days. He noted, however, that the recent conversation has left out the fact that the United States has not made meaningful upgrades to its energy infrastructure since the 1970s.
Ross testified that private investors have approximately $140 billion in transmission system overhauls and development of new lines awaiting permit approvals.
“Our current electric distribution system is outdated and inefficient, and the permitting and approval process for large-scale transmission projects is more than burdensome: it’s an outright barrier to construction,” he said.
Ross was joined at the witness table by a senior executive from signatory transmission and distribution contractor ITC Holdings, Vice President for Operations Brian Slocum; John Devine, from the National Hydropower Association; Schenectady, New York, Mayor Gary McCarthy; Chancellor Brenda Hellyer from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, and Jennifer Chen an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy and transportation program and sustainable Federal Energy Regulatory Commission project.
There was wide agreement among the witnesses that the current system is holding the nation back, and some broad agreement on what to do.
Beyond the universal plea to accelerate the approval process by reducing the number of agencies involved and more aggressive coordination and planning role by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the hearing broadly focused on two topics.
First, since the majority of electrical infrastructure is privately owned and built, the witnesses offered several ways the federal government could encourage investors to build more and larger projects. Suggestions included allowing the use of tax exempt bonds to fund private projects and federal incentives to build extra capacity into transmission projects to meet future demand.
Ross and Hellyer were invited to speak about the second issue: developing the skilled workforce that will build the projects.
Ross told the committee members the IBEW is ready to provide the next generation of construction linemen, but the uncertainty caused by approval delays makes that job harder.
“It takes three years to train a journeyman lineman to perform transmission line construction and maintenance, and we anticipate the need for approximately 50,000 new linemen over the next 10 years,” he said. “While projects are held up, we are losing valuable training time.”
Political Director Austin Keyser said he was heartened the Republican-majority committee invited the IBEW to speak and was pleased with Ross’s reception.
“We received a great deal of the committee’s attention and that isn’t always good, but this time it was,” he said. “We were asked important questions and I think that they – on both sides of the aisle – heard how important our members will be in this monumental task.”
Keyser said he hopes that the Republican-led committee won’t be wedded to the president’s flawed proposal and will look closely at the $1 trillion proposal introduced last month by the Democrats. (The proposal was covered in detail by the Electrical Worker here.)
“It has been 10 years since we last talked as a nation about investing in infrastructure,” he said. “What we saw today was that Congress is hearing the message: the need is great, and the hour is late. Now, we work to get the right policies into law.”