A group of House Democrats is pushing Congress to use the powerful Defense Production Act (DPA) to rapidly produce electric transformers, a call that comes in the wake of an armed attack at two substations in North Carolina that left tens of thousands without power.
The nine Democratic members — which include Reps. Sean Casten (Ill.), Doris Matsui (Calif.) and Connor Lamb (Penn.) — asked for $2.1 billion in emergency funding to develop domestic supply chains to produce transformers, which are considered a critical weak point in the power grid.
The money would be be paid out of a forthcoming Disaster Supplemental Funding bill — an ad hoc measure expected to be passed during the lame-duck session to aid in disaster recovery.
The recent attacks on transformers in Moore County, N.C., were one threat that is “top of mind” for the members, said a source familiar with the matter. The FBI has joined the investigation into the destructive vandalism, which officials say was caused by gunfire
But levels of both consumer demand and disaster-based destruction of infrastructure are increasing, the House members wrote. One immediate cause of the current shortage of electric transformers stems from the fact that so many of the devices have gone to repair wrecked power systems on hurricane-ravaged parts of the Gulf Coast.
“Extreme weather events have added pressure to the already-struggling transformer supply chain,” the lawmakers noted.
In addition to current threats, they listed a wide array of potential one to the grid, from naturally occurring shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field to attacks via hackers or electromagnetic pulse to disruptions of foreign supplies.
The members called on the House and Senate Appropriations committees to use the DPA, which allows the president to direct the production of domestic industry, to drive the production of a wide range of electric grid components.
The wishlist of grid materials includes the steel to build towers and cables, the switchgear to direct electric flows across power systems and the complex array of substations, inverters and optimizers that get electricity safely from power plants into home devices.
In particular, they focused on the limited domestic supply chains for electric transformers — which work to “step down” electricity from the extremely high voltages used for long-distance transport to the lower ones that can be safely used by local grids.
Large power transformers — which handle about 90 percent of the electricity Americans use — are “one of the most vulnerable components on the grid,” according to the Department of Energy (DOE).
But a February DOE report found that just eight U.S. companies produce transformers, with an output that supplies only 20 percent of total demand.
“The current shortage puts America’s national security at risk, weakens the resilience of our electrical grid, and jeopardizes our decarbonization goals,” the members wrote.
The request also comes amid a larger push by clean energy advocates in the House to build out a revamped nationwide grid.
Many clean energy advocates — including Casten — see a vastly expanded national grid essential to connect sparsely populated renewable energy-producing regions with the faraway cities hungry for electricity.
Both President Biden and former President Trump used the DPA — a Korean War-era measure initially used to mandate the production of military hardware — to direct the mass production of key items to fight the coronavirus pandemic, such as ventilators and vaccines.