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Could Hillary Clinton’s ‘Open Borders’ Energy Grid Idea Really Work?

Investigating the feasibility of a controversial line from a speech revealed by Wikileaks.

Meredith Rutland Bauer

Meredith Rutland Bauer

Image: Hillary for America/Flickr/CC By NC 2.0

You may not have noticed it, but Wednesday night's presidential debate brought up an important point about the future of electricity delivery.

During a discussion about border control—and for the sake of not spiraling into chaos, we'll leave that topic aside—Hillary Clinton defended her comment about wanting "open borders" from a 2013 speech recently revealed by Wikileaks. Clinton said she was specifically referring to the idea of an international energy grid that the US could use to share power with neighboring countries.

Right now, the US doesn't even have a national energy grid, and the current setup of various different grids across the country is expected to need $2 trillion in upgrades by 2030, according to a report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, which studies energy needs.

So would an international grid be possible? If it even is, would it be worth it?

The US electricity supply is currently broken into three main grid systems: the Eastern Interconnection grid that supplies electricity to states from the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean, the Western Interconnection for states between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains and the Texas Interconnected grid that covers most of Texas, according to the Department of Energy. This doesn't include Alaska and Hawaii.

Map of the US electrical grid network as of 2012, showing connections into Canada. Image: US Energy Information Administration

From a technological standpoint, the US electricity system could be reconfigured into one national grid, said Christopher Clack, founder of renewable energy consulting company Vibrant Clean Energy. The greater barrier is the state and federal red tape surrounding those decisions.

"The main constraint to connecting the US together into one grid is legislation," he said in an email.

Even if a national grid system were possible, would it be possible to arrange international agreements to make it work? Yes, Clack said, but it would be difficult.

"The grids between USA and Canada work together well already in many regions, while Mexico, much less so."

"The grids between USA and Canada work together well already in many regions, while Mexico, much less so. The downsides are much more coordination in electricity policy with neighbor countries to facilitate smooth operation of the larger market," he said. "There will need to be resource coordination implying more reliance on generators that are outside the US. Therefore, the US power supply could be impacted by problems that are outside of the US borders."

Europe already has a large-scale electricity grid system in place, but getting everyone to agree can be really complicated. Twenty-four countries, including Spain, Denmark and Poland, are partially or entirely connected by the synchronous grid of Continental Europe. Its workers are part of the union the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, and debates are nearly always ongoing about regulations and procedures.

On one hand, the distributed grids make it harder for cyber attacks to bring down all the the US' electricity in one foul swoop. Experts warn that a more connected grid that relies on more computer technology could be more vulnerable to cyber terrorism, according to the Pew Research Center.

But on the other hand, having at least a national electricity grid system would do wonders for energy efficiency. Isolated grids are less efficient than interconnected systems. With an interconnected system, areas that needed more electricity at certain moments— such as during a heat wave—could pull resources from other areas that weren't as stressed. Less electricity would need to be stored for peak demand, according to Clack.

"Creating a larger grid reduces the strain on individual systems and can add resiliency to the changing climate, and can provide additional benefits for electrifying other energy sectors," Clack said.

Realistically, it isn't likely that such a system will come about during the next presidency, even if there is the political motivation. But the first steps could be put into place.

"A North American grid could happen by 2030s to 2050s, if the countries perform the needed studies and begin the planning in the next few years," Clack said.

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