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The $1 trillion infrastructure bill is a baby step toward the US grid we need

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The $1 trillion infrastructure bill is a baby step toward the US grid we need


Any effective plan to tackle climate change hinges on a basic technology: long wires strung across tall towers.

The US needs to add hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines in the coming decades to weave together fragmented regional power systems into an interconnected grid capable of supporting a massive influx of renewables.

A national network of short spur lines and long-distance, high-voltage wires would deliver wind, solar and hydroelectric power to where it’s needed when it’s available across the country. It could help provide reliable backup power when heat waves or winter storms cause regional power shortages, and keep up with soaring demands as homes and businesses increasingly come to rely on electricity to power their vehicles, heating systems, and more.

It’s a grand vision with a few serious flaws. For starters, it could cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build out the necessary power lines this decade alone. A Princeton-led study found it will take an additional $350 billion for the US to develop the transmission capacity needed in just the next nine years. That’s under a scenario in which wind and solar provide half of the country’s electricity by 2030, putting the nation on track to zero out emissions by midcentury.

Even if the government and businesses free up the necessary funds, there’s an even trickier challenge ahead: states, counties, cities, and towns across the nation would need to quickly sign off on a multitude of new transmission lines. And the US has become terrible at permitting such multi-state projects.

A series of efforts to deliver cheap, clean hydro power from Canada, wind from the Great Plains, and a blend of renewables from the Southwest have been mired in legal battles for years, or rejected, often because a single region balked at having the wires cut through its land. Even those large grid projects that do get built can easily take a decade to work through the approvals process.

Some help may finally be on the way. The roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package moving forward in the Senate, which has bipartisan support, provides billions of dollars for transmission lines. It also includes some provisions that might prove even more important than the money, by enhancing and clarifying federal power over project approvals.

Still, the package would represent just a small down payment on the investments and permitting changes that will be required.

‘Lagging behind’

The US doesn’t have a single grid. It has three aging, disconnected systems, largely built around the middle of the last century, with limited abilities to swap electricity across states and larger regions. That’s a problem because power plants can be hundreds of miles away from major cities, where the demand for the electricity is greatest.  

The isolated grids mean that electricity from fluctuating sources like solar and wind can only be shipped so far, wasting some portion of the output and driving down prices when generation outstrips regional demand during particularly windy and sunny periods (which is occurring more and more as those sources make up a greater share of the electricity supply). For instance, California can’t ship its excess solar power to the Midwest during the middle of a summer day, or draw on the steady wind power from, say, Oklahoma when the sun starts to dip on the West Coast.

But operators of an integrated grid could tap into the lowest-cost electricity available across a far larger area and deliver it to places with high demand, notes Doug Arent, an executive director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Whatever renewable sources are cranking out electricity at the time, whether it’s wind in Wyoming or solar in Florida, could find a willing market.

Long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines also enable more development of solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal plants in the regions blessed with the weather, geology, or waterways to supply them: developers will be able to count on larger customer bases in cities that may be a time zone or two away.

A recent Lawrence Berkeley lab presentation noted there’s already more than 750 gigawatts of power generation proposals in the queue across five regions of the US, awaiting transmission connections that could deliver the electricity to customers. The vast majority of them are solar and wind projects. (By way of comparison, the US’s entire fleet of large-scale plants can generate a little more than 1,100 gigawatts.)

Other countries are zipping ahead in this area. China has emerged as the world’s clear leader in high-voltage transmission, building tens of thousands of miles of these lines to connect its power plants with cities across the vast nation. But while China developed 260 gigawatts of transmission capacity between 2014 and 2021, all of North America added just seven, according to a survey conducted by Iowa State University.

“The US is lagging behind, yet it has every reason to catch up,” James McCalley, a professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University and a coauthor of a national grid study published late last year, said in a statement.

A fraction of what’s needed

So how could the US begin to close that gap?

First, it will need more money. While the Biden administration has boasted that the infrastructure package provides $73 billion for “clean energy transmission,” those funds are spread across a wide array of efforts, including research and development as well as demonstration projects in areas like carbon capture and clean hydrogen.

The current version of the infrastructure package sets aside only about $10 billion to $12 billion specifically for erecting transmission towers and wires, notes Rob Gramlich, president of power consulting firm Grid Strategies.

That’s a fraction of the amount the Princeton study found the US will need to put in work in the next nine years. While federal spending is designed to unlock private capital, the US would still need to invest tens of billions more to get to the necessary scales this decade, says Jesse Jenkins, a coauthor of the Princeton study and an assistant professor at the university.

It also establishes a $2.5 billion revolving loan program for projects, which effectively makes the Department of Energy the initial customer for new transmission lines. This federal financing could help get time-consuming but necessary transmission projects under way before the developer has lined up customers. That could ease the perpetual chicken-and-egg problem between building more electricity generation and constructing the lines needed to transport it, observers say.

Eventually the federal government can sell those rights to clean electricity plants that need access to the lines.

It’s a promising policy tool that “just needs another zero in that budget line,” Jenkins says.

Permitting permits

Though short on money, the proposed infrastructure bill does address approval logjams.

A long-running challenge in many parts of the US is that electricity generating capacity and energy demands grow faster than transmission systems. People and businesses want cheap, reliable electricity, but few embrace the necessary towers and wires—especially if they seem to deliver electricity and economic benefits mostly to far-off areas. There are often aesthetic, environmental, social justice, and business competition criticisms as well.

“If we are going to meet our climate goals, we have to figure out ways to approve these big transmission projects—and historically we’ve struggled to do so,” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC, in an email.

A 2005 energy law sought to address these tensions, granting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the ability to step in and sign off on projects that could alleviate transmission constraints in certain areas designated national electric transmission corridors. But so far, the Department of Energy has only designated two such areas, in the mid-Atlantic and in Southern California.

In addition, a federal court of appeals ultimately limited FERC’s authority, finding it only had the right to sign off on projects if states or other jurisdictions held up an application for more than a year. It did not have the ability to overrule state rejections of applications under the law, the court ruled.

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A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry

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A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry


China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.

The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.

The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals. 

In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma. 

Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas. 

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.

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The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.


The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.

Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”

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We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”


The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.

A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs. 

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there. 

This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.

Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor,  and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes. 

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.

Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”

However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.

In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.

We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. 

The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.

Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity. 

Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.

Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.

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