The long awaited White House infrastructure plan finally arrived Monday with much fanfare about investments to roads, rail, water supply, hydropower and education. When it comes to any spending on the electric transmission and distribution system, however, the silence may be deafening.
The $1.5 trillion wish list—called “The Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America—says almost nothing about the smart grid directly and actually advocates selling off several large electric transmission assets the federal government does own.
Those proposed saleable assets include the transmission systems for the Western Power Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Southwestern Power Administration and Bonneville Power Administration.Those combined government-owned assets cover thousands of miles in lines and millions of customers.
“The federal government owns and operates certain infrastructure that would be more appropriately owned by state, local or private entities. For example, the vast majority of the nation’s electricity needs are met through for-profit investor-owned utilities,” the document released Monday reads. “Federal ownership of these assets can result in sub-optimal investment decisions and create risk for taxpayers. Providing federal agencies authority to divest of federal assets where the agencies can demonstrate an increase in value from the sale would optimize the taxpayer value for federal assets.”
Many of these public power entities date back to the 1930s. The transmission assets presumably would be sold to utilities, whether transmission-only or integrated, although the infrastructure plan does not detail the divestiture possibilities.
The White House release does dedicate several pages to water infrastructure, including hydropower. The focus on the hydro generation also is on the potential for privatization. The Water Resources Development Act of 1990 defines operations and maintenance at hydropower facilities are government and not commercial, but the new plan seeks to reverse that 28-year-old set of rules.
“This designation creates unnecessary bureaucracy and restricts open competition that leads to excess costs for operations that can easily be done at a lower cost and more efficiently,” the Trump proposal reads. It calls for mending the law to once again let the Secretary of the Army decide whether hydropower facilities are commercial activities and eligible for non-federal operators.
The $1.5 trillion plan does call for broadening eligibility for private activity bonds to encourage investment in water and infrastructure. The document, however, does not detail energy efficiency outlays in any detailed way, and some advocates are wary of this perceived oversight.
“We need to do this the right way upfront, because there’s a real downside to building new things when you have to spend an arm and a leg to run them,” Kateri Callahan, president of The Alliance to Save Energy, said in a statement. “Our public buildings, ports, water facilities and other infrastructure use enormous amounts of energy, and we have an opportunity with this package to reduce costs to taxpayers for decades to come by making them more energy efficient.”
A Washington Post report earlier this month indicated that Trump Administration hoped to cut 72 percent of the budget for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The president's team dismantled the Obama-era Clean Power Plan last year and hopes to ignite a rally for the struggling coal industry, as well.
The infrastructure plan hopes to cut regulatory red tape for permitting projects as much as fund those investments, if the 50-plus-page document is any indication. Among the potential regulatory or judicial rollbacks would be limitations on the ability of outside agencies to intervene in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proceedings, according to the report.
Only a portion of the plan would be federal funds directly invested in projects. The actual government outlay might be closer to $200 billion to spur some $1.3 trillion in private investment, according to reports. Private activity bonds conceivably could be used in grid projects for rural communities.
Trump’s plans also hopes to revolutionize the way student aid is dispensed, creating Pell Grants for those seeking short-term training for certification in in-demand fields such as construction, maintenance and operations.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to postsecondary education,” the infrastructure document reads. “Rather, there are multiple pathways to success for students, and federal law should enable students to explore and access these pathways.”