My problem with President Obama's stimulus package is that it lacks ambition. Especially when it comes to investing in the new grid we will need to support renewable energy.
We know that our energy infrastructure is at the breaking point. Yet the stimulus package allocates only $80 billion over a number of years for a wide range of energy projects. A lot of that money will go to basic energy efficiency upgrades like replacing old boilers and insulation in public buildings. All things that should be done, but these investments will not be enough to create a 21st Century energy infrastructure.
The problem is: We are making small plans with short-term objectives. This is no way to reinvigorate the most important economy in the world.
To understand why, let's look back at the successes of the 20th century.
Imagine what the US economy would have been like in the first half of the 20th century if we never built the railroads. Without railroads, we would have remained a predominantly agrarian economy in which most people lived their entire lives without traveling more than 50 miles from their birthplace.
That changed with the railroads. In the 25-year period between 1875 and 1900, almost 200,000 miles of new railroad tracks were built in the US. Because of this massive investment in the late 19th century, we started the 20th century with about 260,000 miles of track in the US, compared to about 280,000 miles of track in the entire rest of the world combined.
Building the largest railroad network in the world gave us a competitive advantage that helped transform the US from a mostly agrarian society to a diversified economic powerhouse during the first half of the 20th century.
Now imagine what the US economy would have been like in the second half of the 20th century if we never built a national highway system.
Beginning with planning during WWII, the national highway system has grown into 160,000 miles of roads connecting virtually every part of the continental United States -- making it the largest highway system in the world.
Building the largest road system in the world gave us a competitive advantage that was essential to our success as the most dynamic economy in the world during the second half of the 20th century. Do you think computers are important to the US economy? Remember that they would never have reached the store (or your home) without a truck on a highway.
Now imagine what the 21st century will look like if we do not invest in new energy infrastructure.
The electric grid we rely on today is not much different than the one we began building at the turn of the last century (and not much more reliable either). We use higher voltages, and we have some basic demand response programs, but our electric grid is still essentially as dumb (lacking intelligence) as it was when Nikola Tesla delivered his famous lecture on polyphase alternating currents in 1888. This grid based on a 100-year-old design is not capable of supporting the economy of the future.
The questions we face are pretty straightforward:
Will we continue to rely on a 19th century electric grid design to power a 21st century economy?
Or will the US make the investments necessary over the next 20 years to build the largest and smartest electric grid in the world?
Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect, inspired many at the start of the 20th century with his admonition that we should "make no little plans." We need to adopt his charge today when it comes to investing in the future of energy infrastructure in the US.
Now is not the time to make small plans. We must make massive investments in our energy infrastructure starting today and continuing for a few decades. The number will be in the trillions, not the billions. That is the only way we will create jobs today. And it is the only way we will secure a future of prosperity for our children and grandchildren.
P.S. -- Here's Burnham's full quote:
"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons [and daughters and granddaughters] are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."
Woodbridge, New Jersey