In Fall 1938, in the aftermath of Munich, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the expansion of the American Army Air Force (AAF) from 1,200 airplanes to a force of 15,000 planes.  Army Assistant Chief of Staff George C. Marshall then tried to talk some sense into his boss.  Sequence, he insisted: first one thing, then the next thing.  What the AAF needed first was the construction of lots of airfields and the establishment of mass training programs for pilots, navigators, bombardiers, air-gunners, aircraft mechanics, and all the other people who would service and fly the planes.  Only after an adequate infrastructure had been created would it be desirable to build the planes.[1]  There are lessons in this little anecdote. 

Wind and solar power provide “clean” energy, while carbon-burning electricity generation create about 25 percent of the country’s “greenhouse gases.”  Clean energy suffers from constraints related to location.  They take up a lot of space and they work best where there is a lot of sun and wind.  So they are most easily constructed in areas remote from the urban areas of mass energy consumption.  Transmission of the energy from point of generation to point of use is handled by the nation-wide network of power lines and transformers.[2] 

Aye, there’s the rub.  The “nation’s antiquated systems to connect new sources of electricity to homes and businesses” is grievously delaying the transition from dirty to clean energy.[3]  What does “antiquated systems” mean exactly?  Power companies have squeezed out obscene profits by skimping on maintenance and modernization, right?  Apparently not.  Rather, there are other long-existing barriers not addressed by the climate legislation of the Biden Administration. 

The American electricity distribution grid took a long time to construct, beginning in the 1920s.  Eventually it reached a stable state, with only a handful of new power plants being added every year.  After spectacular “blackouts” in the 1960s, attention turned to improving reliability.  Stable transmission systems led to the creation of a stable body of human capital.  In this case, it was power engineers who could understand the complex systems.  In short, there are two related bottlenecks in any rapid shift from one form of electricity generation to another. 

This is evident in current experience.  New projects seeking access to the grid system apply to the power authority in their region for permission to connect.  The current system is badly clogged because there are only a limited number of power engineers to assess the projects.  In 2012, it took two years for projects to gain approval; in 2022 it took four years.  Once the limited and over-loaded pool of power engineers completes an assessment, the applicant is often told that they must foot the bill for new transmission lines.  Long waits and unanticipated high costs have already derailed many “green” energy projects.  The large subsidies for clean energy generation, rather than transmission, offered by the Biden Administration are likely to make matters much worse. 

So, sequence: first one thing, then the next thing.  Which we’re not doing. 

[1] Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1933-1945 (1979), pp. 172-174.  The Thirties and Forties witnessed rapid technological innovation in aircraft.  Building the planes before you had the infrastructure would guarantee that those aircraft were obsolete by the time you had the people to fly them. 

[2] See: North American power transmission grid – Wikipedia 

[3] Brad Plumer, “U.S. Solar Goal Stalled by Wait on Creaky Grid,” NYT, 24 February 2023.