Electricity usage in the United States is projected to grow more than twice as fast as committed resources over the next 10 years, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC). In its 2007 Long-Term Reliability Assessment, NERC says that unless additional resources are brought into service, some areas could fall below their target capacity margins within 2 or 3 years, and it expects demand to outpace resource growth in parts of Western Canada within 2 years. Specifically, peak demand for electricity in the United States is forecasted to increase by almost 18 percent in the next 10 years, while committed resources to meet demand, including demand response programs, are projected to grow by only 8.5 percent.

“We are at the stage where emergency situations are becoming more frequent,” says Rick Sergel, president and CEO of NERC. “Though some improvements have been made, we are requiring our aging grid to bear more and more strain, and are operating the system at or near its limits more often than ever before.” The ability to cope with equipment failure and extreme weather is also being compromised as operating margins decrease.

It isn’t as though technology doesn’t exist to address this challenge. For example, no renewable power source has as much theoretical potential as solar energy, says David Talbot, but the promise of cheap and abundant solar power remains unmet, largely because today’s solar cells are so costly to make. Writing in the March/April issue ofTechnology Review, published by MIT, Talbot reports on quantum dots-tiny crystals of semiconductors just a few nanometers wide-that some chemists believe could make solar power cost-competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. This report is part of the annual 10Emerging Technologiesreport published by Technology Review.

NERC expects that wind energy resources will grow throughout North America, perhaps reaching 30 percent of overall capacity in some areas. While the potential is obvious, siting wind farms has become, to say the least, a contentious issue in some locations.

Nuclear power has played a significant role for more than 30 years, producing approximately 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States and 13 percent in Canada, according to NERC. Yet, although there are 104 operating nuclear power reactors in the United States and 22 in Canada, no new nuclear power plants have been commissioned since 1992. Although nuclear safety has improved greatly in the past 30 years, that-and plant siting-continue to be barriers to expansion.

So it isn’t a question of whether technology exists to meet the challenge. The question is whether government, environmental groups, consumer-interest organizations, public health advocates, unions and othersad infinitumcan get past their self-interest positions and cooperate in addressing the real electrical power needs of the nation.